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Return to Freedom


Near the end of the 2013 Academy Award-winning film Twelve Years a Slave, the movie’s protagonist, Solomon Northup, is rescued by a man named Cephus Parker, who was the owner of a dry-goods store in Saratoga Springs, New York, and who was well known to Northup and his family. In the film, Parker explains to Edwin Epps, Northup’s sadistic “slave master” and owner of the steamy, sweat-drenched plantation on Bayou Boeuf in central Louisiana, that his “slave,” whom Epps knows as Platt, is actually Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York. Incredulous, Epps curses and threatens Parker and Northup as the two men make their way to the carriage that drives them to safety. 

On the second page of his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853, Solomon gives thanks to his actual rescuer: “Henry B. Northup, Esq., of Sandy Hill, a distinguished counselor at law, and the man to whom, under Providence, I am indebted for my present liberty, and my return to the society of my wife and children, is a relative of the family in which my forefathers were thus held to service, and from which they took the name I bear. To this fact may be attributed the persevering interest he has taken in my behalf.”   

Why did John Ridley, the screenwriter, and Steve McQueen, the director, choose to show Parker as Solomon’s rescuer rather than Henry Bliss Northup? Perhaps Ridley and McQueen feared audiences might assume mistakenly that Henry Northup had come to claim his chattel property. After all, Solomon admits that his “forefathers” were “held to service” by the white Northups. Yet, he also refers to Henry as a “relative.” This curious circumstance is the consequence of one of Henry Bliss’s great-uncles, Captain Henry Northup, owning Solomon’s father, Mintus, in Rhode Island during the last quarter of the 18th century. Historian William Piersen points out in Black Yankees that 18th-century white New Englanders typically viewed slaves as part of the family unit, as fictive kin. Additionally, although relations between whites and freed blacks in the North were generally strained in the decades following Northern emancipation at the end of the 18th century, some freedmen and freedwomen, as Joanne Melish notes in Disowning Slavery, expected the patronage of their former masters to continue. For years after gaining his freedom in 1798, Mintus and his family remained within the orbit of the white Northups. It is no wonder, then, that after 12 years of unlawful bondage, Solomon exclaimed upon seeing Henry Bliss standing before him on the Epps plantation on January 3, 1853, “Henry B. Northup! Thank God–Thank God!”


According to the authors of Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, Henry Bliss Northup’s English ancestors settled in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1643, seven years after Roger Williams founded the colony. By the end of the American Revolution, most of the Northups, many of whom were Quaker farmers, had relocated to eastern New York state just across the Vermont border, some in Hoosick Falls near Glens Falls and others in Granville to the north. Captain Henry Northup, Henry Bliss’s great-uncle, brought with him Binar, his enslaved servant girl, and Mintus, his enslaved laborer, Solomon’s father. 

Cheap farmland, family, and a friendly environment for slavery may have drawn Captain Henry to New York. Rhode Island terminated slavery for those born after March 1, 1784. Mintus, born between 1776 and 1778 (d. 1829), was not entitled to freedom in either Rhode Island or in New York, which passed a gradual emancipation law in 1799. Nevertheless, in his will made out in March 1797, Captain Henry stipulated that Mintus should be freed on September 1, 1798, which indeed came to pass.

At some point, Mintus married Susanna, a free woman of color described by Solomon as a “quadroon.” By 1804, Mintus had taken up farming in the small Adirondack town of Minerva, where Solomon was born on July 10, 1807. Farmers from Granville settled this town in 1804, which lay about sixty miles northwest of Granville. Mintus may have been able to rely on the support of a patron there, as he had earlier relied on the white Northups. 

Between 1808 and 1810, Mintus moved back to Granville, where he perhaps managed Clarke Northup’s farm for several years while Clarke tended to his tanning business. In 1816, however, Mintus took his family to Kingsbury, a small community west of Granville, where he most likely farmed as a tenant. That year was the “year of no summer,” and thus a summer of few crops, thanks to the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The poor harvest may have compelled Mintus to move his family to a farm near Fort Edward to be near Nicholas Carr Northup, who lived in nearby Sandy Hill (renamed Hudson Falls). Here, Mintus acquired enough property—at least $100 worth in 1821—to vote, a requirement of all men wishing to exercise the franchise in New York. (After 1822, the state eliminated this property requirement for white males, but raised the ante for black male voters to $250.) Solomon most likely received a common-school education here and learned to play the violin.

John Holmes Northup, brother to Clarke and Nicholas, farmed and blacksmithed in Hebron, a community five miles south of Granville. John and his wife, Anna Wells, raised nine children, the seventh of whom was Henry Bliss, born on April 4, 1805. Given their close ages, fictive kinship ties, and nearness of residences, Henry and Solomon surely spent time together, playing or working on a Northup farm, or perhaps even attending together North Granville Academy. Henry Bliss confirmed as much in his 1852 affidavit, testifying that he had known Solomon since childhood and had been well acquainted with his entire family. As they grew older, however, their lives diverged.


According to Edith Hay Wyckoff, author of The Biography of an American Family, a multigenerational history of the white Northup family, Henry Bliss Northup left home in 1821 at the age of 16 in search of adventure. To the displeasure of his family, he first journeyed to New York City, then to Rhode Island, where he hoped to board a whaler. Instead, an in-law got him assigned to a schooner sailing for the West Indies. After a few months at sea, Henry was ready for college. According to Middlebury College records, he studied at North Granville Academy in preparation for matriculating at Middlebury in 1825, where his older cousin, Carr, studied between 1813 and 1815.

Middlebury records indicate that Henry Bliss undertook a standard classical course of study throughout his four years: Latin and Greek, chemistry and natural history, mathematics and natural philosophy, trigonometry and geography, natural theology and astronomy, law and philosophy, and rhetoric and English literature. During those four years, he lived in the building known as the “West College,” later renamed Painter Hall. Each quarter, his family paid $5 for tuition, $1.50 for his room, and $1.50 for incidentals, for a grand total of $32 per year—an affordable price for a freehold farm family, considering that in 1825, the average farm laborer in New York earned about $120 a year while the average skilled mechanic earned over $350 per year. Henry was a diligent student, but not one above pulling pranks; during his sophomore year, the College informed Henry’s parents that the report of his involvement in a duel on campus was simply a rumor, nothing more than “a matter of sport.”

Henry and his 23 freshmen classmates constituted one-quarter of the total student body. However, four years later, only 18 of his classmates graduated, each of whom gave a speech at Commencement on August 19, 1829. During the afternoon portion of the program, Henry gave the second oration, in Latin: “Influence of Association on Love of Country.” No extant copy of his speech exists. However, one might infer from the title—and from his anti-Freemasonry political leanings—that Henry may have called for a renewed “republican virtue”; that is, for Americans to show love of country above party and fraternal organizations. One year after graduating from Middlebury, Henry, now president of an anti-Mason organization in Washington County, New York, penned a “Proceedings of a Convention of Young Men, of the County of Washington, Opposed to the Masonic Institution,” in which he calls for the eradication of Freemasonry. His essay, critical of the recent murder of Mason William Morgan for publishing the secret inner workings of the organization, demands that Americans rescue “freedom of conscience and liberty of thought and speech” from the Masonic “Party,” which he labels a “Regency.” He rails against local Freemason groups that claimed to be the inheritors of the moribund Republican Party, which Henry hails as the party “consecrated to purity of principle and incorruptible integrity . . . the party of the people; the party of honest men . . . [who] detest hypocrisy and delusion.” This essay represents the foundation of Henry Bliss’s political and moral beliefs: distaste for corruption and abuse and a love of individual freedom and personal liberty.

After graduating from Middlebury College, Henry B., as he began to call himself, moved to Kingsbury, New York, then to Sandy Hill, where he practiced law for over fifty years. He also developed a taste for politics. In 1837, he was elected clerk of the board of supervisors in Washington County, New York, a position he held for the next six years, and one that required great organizational skills. In 1838, Middlebury awarded him a Master of Arts degree. Between 1847 and 1850, Henry B. served as district attorney for Washington County. In 1852, he campaigned for the United States Senate. Henry B. also served one term as a member of the New York Assembly in the mid-1850s. His ambitions meshed well with his talents.

Along with valuing his political and legal careers, Henry B. prized family. On December 10, 1831, he married Electa Taylor of nearby Granville. The Taylors and the Northups created a tight-knit extended family: Electa’s older sister, Ruth Taylor, married Henry B.’s older brother, Nicholas Carr, of Sandy Hill.

Henry B. and Electa enjoyed a long and happy marriage of 46 years. Together, they raised seven children, six of whom survived to adulthood.


In June 1841, Henry B. received a curious letter informing him that his fictive kin, Solomon Northup, had been kidnapped, was held in bondage, and was on a boat headed toward he knew not where. Henry B. could do little with such vague information. In fact, New York Governor William Seward refused to deputize Henry as a rescue agent for the state of New York, even though the state’s legislature had granted governors of the state this new power. The 1840 “act more effectively to protect the free citizens of this State from being kidnapped, or reduced to Slavery” grew out of a dispute with Virginia over returning fugitive slaves. Seward insisted that fugitive slaves were entitled to a trial instead of summary return South. The governor of Virginia demanded that Seward uphold Article IV,  Section 2, of the Constitution: “No person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping [to] another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

Seward refused to recognize this argument, and furthermore insisted on New York’s right to return to the state “any free citizen . . . of this State . . . kidnapped or transported away, into any other State or Territory . . . for the purpose of being there held in slavery.” The kidnapping and selling of free blacks into slavery, which historians today call the “reverse underground railroad,” was a fairly widespread practice in the 1830s and 1840s, especially in Northern states that bordered slaveholding states, in Northern cities, and even in the nation’s capital, where the lack of freedom papers led regularly to the enslavement of free blacks. (On his journey south in 1841, Solomon met two such men—Robert from Cincinnati and Arthur from Norfolk—who became victims of the reverse underground railroad.)

Eleven years later, in early September 1852, during the height of his campaign for the United States Senate, Henry B. received another letter, this one addressed to Cephus Parker, the dry-goods store owner depicted in the film Twelve Years a Slave. Parker and William Perry, another store owner in Saratoga Springs, quickly passed the letter to Solomon’s wife, Anne, who in turn journeyed to the neighboring village of Sandy Hill to place the correspondence in Henry B.’s hands. This letter, written by Samuel Bass, the Canadian-born antislavery itinerant carpenter who had befriended Solomon on the Epps plantation, explained exactly where Solomon could be found in Louisiana. But Henry B. was too busy campaigning for the Senate to act on this information. Solomon would have to wait until after the election. 


In Fort Edward, New York, on Christmas Day 1828, 21-year-old Solomon Northup married Anne Hampton, a biracial woman from Sandy Hill. They raised three children, and throughout their marriage Anne worked as a domestic in private homes and as a cook in hotels and taverns. Solomon labored at several trades, including repairing the newly opened Champlain Canal; rafting lumber from Lake Champlain to Troy, New York; farming; and playing the fiddle.

In 1834, Solomon and Anne moved to the summer resort village of Saratoga Springs, where Anne’s reputation as an outstanding cook grew. In addition to playing his violin, Solomon worked as a hack driver and perhaps as a waiter. Some evidence suggests that Solomon, described by one acquaintance as a “wandering fellow,” may have traveled far and wide—perhaps as far south as the slave states—in search of work.

In March 1841, two white men, who gave their names as Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton—but whose actual names were Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell—introduced themselves to Solomon as performers in a circus in Washington, D.C. They invited Solomon to accompany them to New York City, promising him $1 a day for driving their team and easy money for playing his fiddle before audiences at night. Against the advice of several skeptical friends, Solomon accepted their offer. Once in New York, Solomon’s escorts secured “freedom papers” for him and convinced him to continue with them to the nation’s capital.

Arriving in Washington, D.C., rather than going directly to the alleged circus, the three men explored the city. They witnessed the funeral procession of the late President William Henry Harrison, viewed the Capitol and the White House, and during one afternoon and evening, engaged in one of Solomon’s reported pastimes: drinking. They hopped from tavern to tavern until Solomon passed out. When he awoke, Solomon found himself without money and without his freedom papers, fettered in a slave pen, awaiting transport to Louisiana.

By far, Solomon’s cruelest “master” throughout his 12-year ordeal was Edwin Epps, well known in the region as a brutal breaker of slaves. Solomon could not let on to Epps that he was literate, nor reveal that he was freeborn. When he told his prisoners in D.C. that he was a freeman, they beat him severely and cautioned him to never utter that claim again. To declare his free status to Epps would have surely meant Solomon’s quick death, which would have eliminated conveniently any evidence that Epps had engaged in illegal human trafficking. Instead, Solomon witnessed and endured unimaginable brutality for more than a decade.

In November 1852, Henry B., campaigning as a conservative Whig, lost a close election for the Senate to a former Free-Soiler opponent, who ran as a Democrat. One might speculate on why Henry B. delayed rescuing Solomon: fear that making public his connections to Solomon would cost him the election; or perhaps calculating that if he won, he could exercise greater authority in rescuing his childhood friend. Regardless, within a few days of losing the election, Henry B. collected affidavits from members of Solomon’s family and friends, to which he added his own letter of surety. This time, with sufficient, convincing evidence documenting Solomon’s whereabouts, New York Governor Washington Hunt deputized Henry B. with the necessary authority to bring Solomon home.

Understanding that liberating Solomon would not be easy, Henry B. armed himself with as much authoritative weight as possible. First, he paid a visit to Associate Supreme Court Justice Samuel Nelson in Washington, D.C. The two men had much in common: both men had roots in Hebron, New York; attended North Granville Academy and Middlebury College (Justice Nelson graduated in 1813); and both practiced law. However, the two men disagreed politically: Justice Nelson, a Democrat, supported the legality of slavery; Henry B., a Whig, probably detested the immorality of slavery. Nevertheless, Justice Nelson gave Henry B. a letter of introduction.

Before reaching the Epps plantation on January 3, 1853, Henry B. stopped in Marksville, Louisiana, where Bass had posted his letters, to hire a lawyer, to interview Bass, and to have legal papers drawn up that would authorize Henry B. and the local sheriff to remove Solomon from the Epps farm.

At the plantation, they presented Epps with the irrefutable evidence that the man whom Epps believed was Platt was in fact Solomon Northup. According to Solomon, Epps spewed that if he had known of their coming, he would have run him “into the swamps . . . where all the sheriffs on earth” would not have found him.


On their return trip to New York, Henry B. and Solomon stopped in Washington, D.C., to try to bring Solomon’s slave trader, James H. Birch, to justice. Because Solomon could not testify against a white man in that city, Judge Morsell found in Birch’s favor. An article in the January 20, 1853, issue of the New York Times noted this injustice: “The evidence of this colored man was absolutely necessary to prove some facts on the part of the prosecution, as he alone was cognizant of them.” Birch then filed a countersuit against Solomon, alleging that he had colluded with Merrill and Russell to defraud him. When Henry B. offered to speak for Solomon, Birch dropped his suit.

Back in Saratoga Springs, Henry B., Solomon, and David Wilson, a local lawyer, collaborated in writing his memoir, a task they completed in three months. Their goals were several: to publicize Solomon’s tragic story; to help Solomon back on his feet so that he could pay off a number of debts (he sold the copyright to his memoir for $3,000); and to get the word out about his local kidnappers. Meanwhile, Solomon found himself busy as a speaker on the abolitionist circuit. In addition, he performed in two stage plays based on his memoir in New York and Massachusetts, to little acclaim. All the while, local newspapers ran stories continually about Solomon’s ordeal.

By the time the memoir was published in July 1853, Henry B. had spent a considerable amount of time and money to apprehend Solomon’s kidnappers. Virtually upon publication, the authorities apprehended Alexander Merrill in Wood Hollow near Gloversville, New York. Merrill, described as a “desperate fellow” who slept with a Bowie knife and a pair of pistols on the floor, was a known kidnapper. They also apprehended Joseph Russell, his accomplice, on a canal boat. The case against these two men went to trial at the county court in August 1854. However, due to some clever maneuvering by the two men’s defense attorneys to get the charges of kidnapping in New York dismissed, and through a series of appeals to the State Supreme Court and to the Court of Appeals, which necessarily created delays and ultimately threw the case back to the county court, the case grew stale and cold. The charges against the two kidnappers were dismissed in May 1857. 

After 1857, Solomon disappears from the historical record, save for a few tantalizing bits of evidence suggesting that he lived for a time in Vermont and Canada. Some of his friends speculated that Solomon had been kidnapped again, or even murdered. No grave of Solomon Northup has ever been found.

Although Henry Bliss Northup could not achieve complete justice for Solomon, the effort he gave in pursuing legal redress demonstrates his moral commitment to liberty, justice, and virtue. Henry B. and his wife, Electa, lived out the rest of their lives quietly in Sandy Hill, raising their orphaned granddaughter, Edith. Henry B. died there in 1877, Electa in 1882. Throughout his life, a strong moral compass guided Henry B.’s thoughts and actions, perhaps expressed best in a passage in his 1830 anti-Masonic essay: “The judgement of one honest man is the judgement of another; and nothing is required to ensure our triumph, but free discussion and the diffusion of information. In the diligent use of these honorable means, we shall assuredly prevail.”

In 2014, descendants of the Northups donated portraits of Henry Bliss Northup and his wife, Electa, to Middlebury’s Museum of Art. The paintings have been painstakingly restored and are now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

How He Won

Political scientist Matt Dickinson intended to spend his sabbatical writing the definitive work on the Obama White House staff. Instead, his leave year was dedicated to chronicling one of the most improbable candidacies for the American presidency.

should be clear right up front: I didn’t immediately scrap my sabbatical plans on that June 16 morning in 2015 when Donald J. Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. That morning in Trump Tower, when he rode the down escalator to a flag-draped stage, Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” reverberating around the atrium, I was as skeptical as anyone that this would be a “real” candidacy.

Instead, as I listened to Trump’s rambling justification for running (“We don’t have victories anymore”) interspersed with an equal mix of outlandish policy promises (“I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created”) and crude attacks on ethnic groups like Mexican immigrants (“They are bringing drugs, they are bringing crime, they’re rapists”) my immediate concern was to extract the maximum entertainment value from his short-lived candidacy before its inevitable implosion.

Toward that end, I sat down after his announcement and wrote a fiendishly clever (to my mind) satirical piece on my Presidential Power blog explaining why I would break my long-standing policy of not voting in presidential elections so that I could support “The Donald.” After lauding, tongue firmly in cheek, his many stellar qualities—“He’s rich!”—I ended my piece by telling Trump, “You’re hired!”—a not-so-subtle play on his signature tagline from Celebrity Apprentice. And then I waited, smugly, for his political comeuppance. Instead, the comeuppance was mine. During the next six months—a period dubbed by political scientists “the invisible primary” because it tends to weed out weaker candidates—Trump continued issuing vague policy promises while insulting anyone who dared to oppose him, including war heroes, journalists, and media anchors, and, not least, his major political rivals, each of whom he tagged with a demeaning sobriquet: “Low-Energy Jeb” Bush, “Lying Ted” Cruz, and “Little Marco” Rubio. Remarkably, even as an increasingly worried Republican Party establishment began belatedly mobilizing against him, and pundits like Nate Silver continued to predict his imminent demise, Trump’s candidacy did not collapse. Instead, he quickly rose to the top of the public opinion polls and stayed there, despite raising and spending comparatively little money, running few ads, and generally seeming to defy what political scientists thought they understood about how to win a major party nomination.

By the end of 2015, Trump was up 20 points over Cruz, his nearest rival based on the aggregate polls. Most of his other opponents—several had already dropped out—were even further behind and polling only in single digits. How was Trump doing it? Belatedly, I decided to find out. With my wife, Alison (she took notes while I live-tweeted events), I had already begun attending candidate rallies in neighboring New Hampshire, home to the crucial first-in-the-nation primary and thus a magnet for all the presidential hopefuls. These were typically intimate, low-key events of perhaps 50–75 people, held at restaurants, schools, and Elks clubs, in which candidates provided brief statements mapping out their major policy positions, fielded some questions, and concluded by asking for people’s support.

Then, in January 2016, about a month before the New Hampshire primary, I attended my first Trump rally, at a high school in Claremont, New Hampshire. I soon realized I had committed the social scientist’s cardinal sin: opining on a topic I had never really studied, never mind understood. On the night of the rally, Alison and I arrived early, only to find a half-mile-long line to get into the high school gymnasium. The night was bitterly cold—the temperature hovering in the lower 20s—and many of those around us, particularly the high school students, were lightly dressed, so we expected some attrition. Instead, in the more than an hour that it took us to get inside, we saw not a single person leave the line. People passed the time buying the ubiquitous Trump campaign paraphernalia—buttons, hats and T-shirts—talking with a small, friendly group of protestors, and trying to stay warm. When we finally passed through the metal detectors at the building’s entrance, we discovered a packed gymnasium of more than 1,000 people. His was by far the largest campaign audience we had seen to date, save for a Bernie Sanders rally in Lebanon, New Hampshire. The crowd appeared to be a demographic cross-section of New Hampshire voters. Of course, it was hard to discern who the solid Trump supporters were, who might still be undecided, and who came just for the experience. But whatever their leanings, they were in a festive mood.

And then Trump hit the stage. In my blog post, published a couple of days later, I tried to capture the essence of my first Trump campaign speech: “Trump finally took the stage, entering while Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ blared from the speakers, almost an hour after the scheduled start time. After referencing the size of the crowd—‘There’s a lot of people still outside . . . should we wait for them? No!’—he immediately launched into a discussion of the latest Reuters poll, which had him leading the race with 42 percent, with Ted Cruz second at 14 percent. He then proceeded to work his way through a series of poll results, all of which showed him ahead of his Republican rivals. ‘And we’re winning big in a place called New Hampshire!’ he exclaimed, to loud cheers. After doing a state-by-state rundown of the polls, he noted, ‘People always ask, “Why do you talk so much about the polls?” Because I’m winning! Believe me, if I’m not winning I don’t talk about ’em.’ He took pains to point out that he was leading among Hispanics in Nevada. Later he would add evangelicals and the Tea Party to his list of supporters—‘I’m winning with everything . . . I’m winning with the smart people. I’m winning with the not-so-smart people too!’”

And, in fact, Trump was winning—and would continue to do so when the actual voting began. After finishing second to Cruz in the Iowa caucuses—a strong performance by Trump in a caucus state where social conservatives dominate the Republican vote—he began methodically racking up victories and clearing the Republican field, beginning with his blowout win in New Hampshire a week later. Ten days after his New Hampshire victory, when the remaining Republican candidates moved south to the more racially diverse state of South Carolina, Alison and I followed. On our arrival we experienced a welcome dose of Southern hospitality when the locals pulled our rental truck from the ditch I had driven it into late at night trying to find our hotel. The next morning, after attending a Cruz rally, we returned to our hotel to find armed security blocking the entrance. It turned out the Trump entourage had moved in to our hotel the previous night, and he and his staff were now preparing to leave to get to his rally. (Later that day we asked the hotel manager what Trump was like. He effusively praised Trump as the most genial of guests.) We hurried ahead to the rally, and once again found ourselves in the midst of a campaign experience like no other.

The next day Trump scored a 10-point victory, ending the candidacy of the one-time front-runner Jeb Bush. On my Presidential Power site I took another stab at explaining Trump’s growing support: “If you want to know why Donald Trump won in South Carolina tonight, you need only have attended his rally yesterday at the Myrtle Beach Civic Center. . . . Inside, Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ blared so loud the floor shook. There was an air of expectation as the large crowd waited for The Donald to arrive. The floor of the Civic Center was packed—I estimated maybe 5,000 people pressing forward to the stage, trying to get a closer glimpse of the candidate. . . . As is typical for a Trump crowd, there was a healthy cross-section of demographic groups, but there was a definite segment of what appeared to be the working-class voter; for example, a group of bikers gathered next to me, with one of them wearing a leather jacket and clutching a Trump poster. . . . Trump ended [the rally] by asking the people to come out and vote for him. ‘We are going to start winning, winning, winning,’ he intoned, to rising applause. As we left the arena, people seemed in a festive mood, as if they had attended a great rock concert or sporting event. ‘You’ll remember this great meeting,’ Trump told them near the end of the speech. And he may very well be right.”

Less than 10 days later, on so-called Super Tuesday—the biggest day of the nominating race in terms of the number of delegates at stake—Trump won six more contests to cement his front-runner status. Two weeks after that we packed our bags once more, this time flying to Florida where we had intended to see whether Marco Rubio could resuscitate his flagging campaign in his home state’s March 16 primary. By the time we arrived, however, Rubio was on political life support. With our interest in him dwindling, and unable to get into any of the packed Trump rallies, we settled for a rather sedate Hillary Clinton event hosted by her husband, Bill. The next day, Trump crushed “Little Marco” by nearly 20 percent, ending Rubio’s candidacy. Although Trump’s remaining two opponents, Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich, hung on for another two months, the race for the Republican nomination was essentially over.

All that remained was Trump’s official coronation as the Republican standard-bearer. In late July, after attending one more Trump rally in upstate New York, Alison and I headed to Cleveland, host of the Republican National Convention, where, in my role as political blogger, I had secured media credentials. Could Trump unify the party? The talking heads on cable television thought not; they speculated endlessly about the chances for a brokered convention in which the Republican delegates would revolt against a Trump candidacy, and a white knight—Mitt Romney? Paul Ryan?—would ride in to rescue the party from certain electoral disaster. Alison and I spent much of our time staked out at a bar near the security entrance to the Quicken Loans arena, where we could watch media pundits like Chuck Todd, Wolf Blitzer, and Van Jones arrive to pontificate about the coming political bloodbath. Alas, the pundits were wrong again. After watching from the nosebleed seats high inside the arena as Trump gave a lengthy acceptance speech punctuated by frequent applause from a very supportive audience, I summarized my experience as follows: “I flew into Ohio expecting to see a very divided set of Republican delegates, and braced for major demonstrations in the streets. Neither expectation was met. In fact, despite the media’s tendency to focus attention on dissenting delegates and other controversies . . . this was a relatively tame event. Once Trump’s team, allied with the Republican Party leadership, beat back an early effort to amend the rules to allow the delegates to vote their conscience, the battle for the nomination was essentially over.”

And the battle for the general election race now began in earnest.


Trump had done the improbable in securing the nomination. Could he now do the impossible and win the presidency? Many of my colleagues thought not. They believed his appeal was limited to the Republican-leaning portion of the electorate, and that he would lose more moderate voters in the general election, and by a wide margin. Based on what Trump’s supporters were telling me at his rallies, I thought otherwise. As I wrote in my convention blog post, Trump’s message of economic populism was likely to find a broader audience: “I think his message will resonate with that portion of the electorate that has experienced years of stagnant wages, and who are worried about growing economic inequality and security issues.”

Eager to see how Trump’s candidacy would play with a general election audience, Alison and I attended one last Trump rally, in Windham, New Hampshire, during early August. Once again the event was packed, and this time we spent most of it outside, talking with Trump supporters barred by the fire marshal from entering the building. In my blog summary, I wrote: “It quickly became clear that two themes dominated the thinking of Trump supporters. The first, expressed—unprompted by me—by every person I talked to, was economic anxiety. Interestingly, that anxiety was not directed so much at their own situation but toward that of their children, or others close to them. . . . The second theme that emerged, again unprompted by me, was a deep antipathy toward Hillary Clinton. One man, in his early 40s, told me he wasn’t voting for Trump as much as he was against Clinton. Almost to a person those I talked to expressed a fundamental belief that she could not be trusted. At one point in our conversation, a woman whose daughter was having twins lowered her voice to tell me, ‘I’m a Roman Catholic and a good Christian, but I just have to say this: that woman [Hillary Clinton] is evil.’”

For much of the general election campaign, however, it appeared my colleagues might be right. Despite the political science forecast models issued in late summer that indicated the race for the popular vote would be very close, Clinton maintained a consistent lead of 2–5 percent in the national polls throughout the fall, and election forecasts by pundits like Silver using state polls gave her a very high probability of winning the Electoral College on November 8. Could the polls be wrong? In a lecture given in late October, I assured my audience that, historically, the polls were increasingly accurate as Election Day approached. If that pattern held, Clinton should win a narrow victory, I said. As it turned out, the polls were wrong. The political scientist forecast models were not. 

On Election Night my colleague Bert Johnson and I gathered in Crossroads Café to analyze the returns and provide commentary. A large crowd of perhaps several hundred expectant students had gathered. Tittering with excitement, they anticipated history being made by the election of the first woman president. That afternoon, in my final weekly politics lunch, I had laid out the progression of states based on poll closing times—first Florida, then North Carolina, and then Ohio—that Trump had to win if he were to pull off an upset. If he lost any one of them, I told my audience, Clinton would be our next president. That night, as the polls closed in the key states I had identified, beginning with Florida at 7, it gradually became clear as the votes were tallied that Trump was outperforming the polls. He had narrow leads in each of the benchmark states and, more surprisingly, he also led in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which almost no one predicted would be in play. As Bert and I took turns explaining what we were seeing in the returns, the festive mood dissipated. Students grew increasingly hushed. One fled in tears, whispering, “I can’t take this anymore.” By 11:30 p.m., when the staff closed the café down, it was apparent that we had witnessed history in the making—but not the history most had expected. By the time I arrived home later that night, most of the key states had been called in Trump’s favor, and it was all but certain that a billionaire businessman with no political experience was going to be our next president.

How did it happen? The next morning I began my U.S. Elections class by recounting what I had seen at the Trump rallies, and how listening to his supporters for the past year provided clues to his victory. Despite the caricatures of Trump voters often presented in partisan social media outlets, I explained, the vast majority were not racist, misogynistic “deplorables.” Indeed, in my conversations, Trump supporters rejected his more inflammatory talking points. Moreover, I pointed out that, although the state polls had systematically underestimated Trump’s support, the fundamentals-based political science forecasts that predicted a closer race proved remarkably accurate. Given those fundamentals—most notably the uneven progression of the economic recovery under Obama, and the difficulty parties had in holding the White House for three consecutive terms—I reminded them that Trump’s narrow victory was not a complete surprise. Nor did it represent a break with previous elections in terms of what motivated voters. It was still largely the economy.

For the most part, my students were not yet ready to hear this. Less than 24 hours earlier they had expected a Clinton victory. Now they were grieving. Several spoke with anger about what they believed Trump’s election really meant about voters in this country. Others broke down in tears. A week later I tried again. Speaking at a College-wide post-election panel, I said, “When you survey most Americans on a gamut of issues and you compare their response in ‘red states’ vs. ‘blue states,’ you find that there’s much more that binds us together, and that we share a common set of values. It’s only the case that when you’re forced to choose between two candidates who may, themselves, be polarized, it appears we are polarized as a nation. In fact, Trump supporters and Clinton supporters agree on much more than they disagree on, and the question, again, is ‘How do you move toward that common ground?’”

How indeed? Presidential elections are inherently divisive. Candidates and their partisans spend most campaigns telling us of the high stakes involved, and the disastrous consequences should their opponent win. In the increasingly balkanized world of cable news and social media, moreover, these polarizing tendencies get magnified. I understand why Trump’s unprecedented (and unpresidentially) divisive language alarmed people, and further exacerbated partisan differences. However, having spent the better part of my sabbatical year listening to Americans explain how they would vote, and why, I am convinced that most of those who backed Trump do not share his more incendiary views. We would do well to remember that our choices of candidates are often more polarized than we are. In reassuring our students that we reject the more demeaning portions of Trump’s message, we must be careful not to demonize the great portion of voters who backed him despite, and not because of, his more hurtful words. We are, in the end, greater together.

Bye, Bye Love

Breakups are hard enough. But when the relationship was born in Middlebury, the uncoupling can be that much more difficult.

When my boyfriend of eight years broke up with me, four years after our Middlebury graduation, I went to Disney World.

It was an odd destination: I was 27, childless, generally wary of crowds. But I needed a fantasy, so I dragged along a close friend, Emily Lackey ’06, who was reeling from her own romantic upset. We sobbed as we rode the Carousel of Progress over and over again, watching the animatronic nuclear family jet into their great, big, beautiful tomorrow. When I came home, my ex had moved all of his belongings out of the apartment.

I remembered only later that my father had once referred to Middlebury as the Disney World of colleges. It was, for those of us lucky enough to fully buy in, something of a dream: a hyperreal and cloistered place, with rules and a language known only to its intimates. And much like the dream of Prince Charming, I believed I had found my epic romance. We had our first date at Taste of India; shared our first kiss at a social house party; had our first blowout argument in the basement of Davis Family Library. I imagined that on our wedding day, we’d trade Cinderella’s Castle for the more modest, but more meaningful, backdrop of Mead Chapel.

Instead, he took up with his best friend’s girlfriend, and I haven’t spoken to him in almost five years.

I wandered, dazed, around the first campus wedding I attended post-breakup, thinking, This was supposed to be mine. This was all supposed to be mine. I would flip to the Class Acts section of the magazine and feel what I can most closely identify as rage. Breakups are, at the best of times, an amicable division of assets, friends, memories. At worst, they are a wrenching apart of some fundamental truth you believed about yourself and the world at large: this is who I am, and this is how I locate myself, and this is the story I tell about my life. Every romance has an element of mythmaking, but Middlebury romances seem particularly susceptible. I was a Midd Kid; I would marry another Midd Kid; together we would raise our children as Midd Kids. It was an identity forged in those moments of young adulthood in which so much is both laid bare and made clear, and it seemed as real, as immovable, as portended, as anything else I knew to be true about myself. Saying good-bye to that identity was almost as difficult—and in moments, more so—as saying good-bye to him.


Like so many others at Middlebury, I first heard the statistic on my college tour: “You know, something like 60 percent of Middlebury students marry other Middlebury students!” said my tour guide, chipper and promising, guileless. Recent examinations of Middlebury love stories have focused on the proliferation of “hookup culture”—in her summer 2015 story “Modern Love,” Leah Fessler ’15 painted a heady, promiscuous world in which roughly 81 percent of students participated in “noncommittal sexual engagements”—but that Middlebury feels radically different than mine (kids these days!), and bears no relationship to Middlebury’s “marriage” mythology.

Even the New York Times weighed in on the myth, in a 1992 piece entitled “Marriage Talk as an Intramural Sport.” “More Middlebury alumni marry each other than do graduates of any other college, former students recall being told by at least two college presidents at freshman orientation,” they wrote. “Some graduates remember hearing a different, more dramatic version: ‘Look to your left, look to your right: Two out of three of you will marry a Middlebury graduate.’”

Let’s correct this notion right away: According to Kim Ehritt, Middlebury’s director of constituent records, the real figure is closer to 16 percent. “That marriage stat is one I’ve tried to debunk so many times over the past 30-plus years,” she writes, claiming she gets asked about the myth every few years by press or an overzealous econ student. “Looking at individual classes, the highest percentage falls in the 25–28 percent range. There’s a jump in the post-WWII/Korean War classes, when many of the men on campus were older veterans. There’s another spike in the classes of the late 1960s (I think in part due to second marriages).”

It’s a salve to my wound: in failing to secure a Middlebury spouse, at least I’m still in the majority. But why does the myth refuse to die?

For starters, Middlebury couples are absurdly strong ambassadors for their kind. A quick glance at the most recent issues of Middlebury Magazine reveals nearly half of the couples captured in the wedding roundup consist of two Midd alums. And the Midd couples I know—and I know many—have built stable, warm unions, and are almost innocent in their views on relationships and romance, having never passed a night at the bar wearily swiping left, left, left.

One half of one such couple, Julia Proctor ’06.5, also remembers hearing the Midd marriage stat during her campus tour. Still, she says, she was under no illusions that she’d meet her husband at college. When Phil Aroneanu ’06.5 asked her to dance at their Feb orientation (“He wasn’t very good”), she didn’t imagine that 10 years later they’d wed on top of a mountain in Maine, surrounded by a host of Midd classmates and friends.

They moved to Burlington after college before relocating to Washington, D.C., and finally New York City, always surrounded by a strong Middlebury contingent. As Phil was one of the founders of 350.org (two of the other founders were a Middlebury couple, since separated), their relationship was, in many ways, an extension of college; as such, Middlebury has played and continues to play a large role in their lives. They can easily rattle off a dozen other Middlebury couples they’d still consider good friends. They’ve held these connections tightly and are now part of a network whose bonds and connections have only deepened since college.

“We love Vermont and think about moving back all the time,” says Phil.

“And our friend groups,” Julia adds, “are still largely Midd Kids.”

“And our professors,” says Phil. “We’re still connected to them.”

“If I compare my summer camp experience with Middlebury, which were both such formative experiences,” says Julia, “I have camp as my own thing, which Phil doesn’t really understand, and I can see how different that is to our connection to Middlebury.”


Of my Middlebury friends who are married, the majority are married to other Middlebury students: if it’s not something in the water that created and cemented these relationships, maybe it’s an issue of timing. These couples knew and loved each other in college; the rest of us are still catching up. One of the starkest reminders of this in my post-breakup life was simply that it was very, very difficult to find someone who shared even a modicum of my interests, curiosities, or passions. In the years after my breakup, I floated—hopeful, alert— through many alumni events. I was willing to toss most of my dating criteria out the window. “Let him just be from Middlebury,” I’d think.

In its geographic isolation, too, Middlebury enforces a sense of solidarity that makes it hard to imagine life without the long lunches in Proctor lounge, the icy trek to Bi Hall in the frigid cold. To fully invest in that world is to forget that anything exists outside of it. It becomes, then, all too easy to roll the carpet of that fantasy further into the future, to the wedding at Mead, the homecomings, the babies in Panther onesies.

For the children of Middlebury couples, that reality is even more potent. In fact, Ehritt speculates that one of the reasons the myth persists is that as older alumni (who heard the statistic from former President Olin Robison, the apparent original mythmaker) graduate, marry, and have children, they pass the romance of their origin story on to their kids. Sarah Little Turner ’06 is the daughter of two Middlebury alumni, Greg ’76 and Ann Downey Little ’77. She entered college under the specter of her parents’ relationship.

“It’s not that there was pressure, but I think, in my 18-year-old brain, there was an expectation or a hope it would happen,” she says. “Before arriving at Midd, it was like, There are all these incredible men who are the perfect match for me, and how will I ever pick one?” That particular fantasy, she said, was crushed not long after she arrived. “But, you know, this is still reality.”

Mine is not, of course, the only Middlebury relationship that ended. Rachel Dunlap ’06 met Lucas Kavner ’06.5 their first shared semester. They became close, and started dating senior year. After graduation, they moved to New York City and took the relationship—and college—with them.

When they did break up, the loss of the relationship was deepened by the perceived loss of Middlebury. “On top of dealing with the regular loss of a breakup, you’re mourning the loss of having that shared experience, all those common friends, and you lose that Middlebury story of having met your partner at Middlebury, becoming a Middlebury family,” Rachel says.

Like me, she subsequently struggled with dating. “When you leave the Midd bubble, you realize how special everyone there is. It’s hard to find that in the real world.” Thankfully, she’s now in a new relationship, and still close to her ex. “I appreciate our friendship even more because it connects me back to all those memories.”  

By sheer numbers, more Middlebury students will break up than marry. Yet somehow, it still feels jarring. Says Phil Aroneanu, “We know a Middlebury couple that got divorced. They were together for all of college, then got married in Vermont, and they were such the epitome of a Middlebury couple.”

“That shattered me,” echoes Julia. “I think we expect those relationships to last—maybe that’s part of the mystique. You see Middlebury couples as these healthy relationships between two strong individuals who know what they want.”

And that, of course, is part of the problem. The Middlebury myth allows us to craft a narrative around the perfect love story. It’s a narrative that—at least in my case—gives us license to mask other issues. As Rachel says: “I think it’s possible that our Middlebury community and closeness might have kept me and Lucas together longer than we would have been otherwise.” It’s comforting, in other words, to stay in the bubble, to resist, if only for a little longer, joining the real world.

Which is not to say that all Middlebury couples inhabit that idyll. Middlebury’s problematic lack of diversity can make romance (among many other facets) difficult. Emiko and Mateal Lovaas Ishihara, both Class of 2006.5, met in passing their first semester; by a stroke of luck, they ended up the only two people in a six-person suite in Ross. “We’ve basically lived together since we were 19,” says Emiko. They became close friends, but didn’t start dating until after college. Neither felt entirely at home at Midd.

“My personal experience was more negative than most,” Emiko says. “I was soul searching. Middlebury can be such an awesome experience, but it wasn’t that for me.” For her part, Mateal cherished the quintessential experiences—cheering on the quidditch team, lunching at the language tables—but ultimately found herself constrained and frustrated. While they’re grateful for the shared memories of their formative years, it was only after they graduated and married that they really came to treasure Middlebury.

“Middlebury had and still has such a small LGBTQ community, and that’s why I think our relationship was meant to be,” says Emiko. They took their infant daughter, Rumi, back to Middlebury this summer. “We took photos in front of Old Chapel,” says Emiko. “It was kind of a pilgrimage, to go back. It was a closed circle, in a way, because that’s how we met. We kept saying to her, ‘This is where you were made!’”


It was through all these conversations that I realized something about what I was really mourning: what I yearned for most was being able to think about Middlebury with unbridled joy. Much as other parting couples suffer the loss of a favorite restaurant, or hear a beloved song turn wrong, I had lost access to Middlebury as sanctuary. I can see now how much of my relationship functioned as a way to prop up that identity, to give me grounding when I lost it: to remind me that I came from a place that was meaningful. That I had a home.

And so for all of that, there is a part of me that wants the myth to continue. College is a time to believe in big things: big dreams, big goals, big change. The myth wanted us to believe in love, and so we did; after all, it was easy to believe at Middlebury, where the aurora borealis once licked the wide sky an eerie green and gold the winter of my sophomore year. Anything was possible, we were told, and so I believed it was possible I’d met my soul mate over warm beer in a dorm room on the third floor of Stewart Hall my second week of college. I think—I know—that I stayed with him longer than I might have if I couldn’t remember the way he looked striding across the lawn in front of Twilight to meet me after class.

In my new partnership—one in which I feel more deeply understood, supported, and cared for than ever before—we are starting from scratch. We have 30-plus years of experiences to unfold for each other. I am ever trying and failing to describe to him the deep, sensory memory of walking back to my dorm from rehearsal late at night across Battell Beach, the profound quiet draping campus, the sharp bite of my boots on snow.

It’s difficult, and exciting, and endless, and someday I will take him to the place I love so much, and try to help him see it through my eyes.

The Prisoner

Theo Padnos ’91 spent nearly two years captive in an al-Qaeda prison in Syria. It was Vermont that saved him.

When he slept, he dreamt of Vermont. Snow falling through the birches. The weatherbeaten red barn. Family gathered around the fieldstone fireplace. Then he woke up to the hot furnace of a Syrian prison, a reality that seemed no less a dream. He’d been captive for months, starting with the day in October 2012 when he had run through an olive grove across the border from Turkey with three young Syrian men. They said they had worked as journalists and could introduce him to members of the Free Syrian Army.

Theo Padnos ’91, was 43 years old at the time, an aspiring journalist who had come to Syria hoping to sell articles about the country’s ongoing civil war. He sat down with the men on a mattress in a small house, asking one of them questions—What made him fight in the revolution? What was the happiest day of the war for him? The saddest? When the interview was over, the cameraman walked up to him, and kicked him hard in the face. One of the men held Padnos down while the others beat him. They put him in handcuffs, tied his legs, and told him, “We’re from al Qaeda. You are our prisoner now.”

That’s how it started, a two-year captivity by soldiers with the al-Nusra Front, Syria’s branch of al Qaeda. The details of his ordeal are captured in a documentary called Theo Who Lived, released this winter on Netflix. For the majority of the time, Padnos was confined to a small cell, and regularly beaten with steel cables and chains, and shocked into submission with a cattle prod. “You try and protect yourself with your hands, and then they start hitting your hands,” he says. “After awhile, your hands are bleeding and broken, so much you have to put them down.”

For all of the abuse he faced, Padnos comes across remarkably unscathed as he sits at a Harvard Square café in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A light rain falls outside the window on the trees in the square, as his bicycle leans against the window, unlocked, outside. His hair is a frizz of gray curls, and his eyes are bright, as he recounts his travails. “I didn’t feel traumatized by the experience,” he insists. “It was a positive tonic, like electroshock therapy. I was a bit down in the dumps, and I came back alert, awake, and happy.”


As a child, Padnos attended private school a few blocks from here at Cambridge’s prestigious Buckingham, Browne & Nichols. He lived in a nearby suburb, and by age 10 was riding the city bus by himself to school. “He went all over Boston by himself,” says his father, Michael Padnos, a former public interest lawyer for environmental and tenant rights. “People said, ‘Aren’t you worried?’ I said, ‘No, he’s got a lot of initiative and he’s very smart. I’m not worried about him.’”

By that time, Padnos was already learning Russian—demonstrating an early facility for languages; eventually he would be fluent in Russian, French, German, Italian, and Arabic. His mother, Nancy Curtis, worked as a writer for museums and arts organizations, and says Padnos was a charming child, with a ready smile and a full head of blond curls. “He was an exceptionally happy, sunny, good-natured boy, so much so that we had one friend who called him ‘Shiny,’” says Curtis, who still lives in Cambridge. 

That shininess darkened at age 13 when his parents divorced and his father moved to France. Around the same time, he came to Vermont to attend boarding school at the Putney School, and took solace in the natural environment. “It seemed like everything that was beautiful and lovely existed there for me,” he says now. “Family, nature, beautiful colleges,” he laughs, “beautiful girls.” Padnos had been coming to Vermont since he was very young, when his parents purchased a ramshackle farmhouse in the woods at the end of a long road in Bridgewater. After he graduated from Putney, he headed just a couple of hours up the road to attend college at Middlebury. “Between the time I was 13 and 22 I went only to private schools in Vermont,” he says. “I was incredibly privileged.”

During college, he spent much of his time rock climbing and skiing cross-country in the surrounding hills, overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the Champlain Valley. He was less enamored with classes, becoming quickly restless to see the outside world. “Middlebury to me was like this little island of oblivion and happiness and cluelessness,” he says. For all of his criticisms, his professors remember him as an enthusiastic learner. “He was a very vital guy, who brought a lot of energy to class,” says English and environmental studies professor John Elder. “He really wanted to get his teeth into it.” Padnos developed a new interest in religion his senior year, taking courses all three terms with Jewish studies professor Robert Schine. “He had a very sensitive, inquiring mind,” remembers Schine. “It was clear he was somebody of deep idealism, and also flighty and a little off the wall. He would have these ideas and not shrink from them.”

Padnos was also responsible for bringing one of Middlebury’s leading lights to campus. During college, he read the essays in the New Yorker by writer Bill McKibben that were in 1989 turned into The End of Nature, one of the first books to address the threat of climate change. Discovering that McKibben was living in the Adirondacks at the time, Padnos wrote him a letter, telling him he was his biggest fan, and urging him to come to Middlebury. It was among the first times McKibben, then 28, had been invited to speak anywhere. Padnos and a group of friends held a private reception for him at a farmhouse they were renting out in Cornwall before McKibben’s talk to an overflow crowd at Dana Auditorium. “Ten thousand speeches later, I remember it well, mostly because of his enthusiasm,” says McKibben, now a scholar in residence in environmental studies. “That was my introduction to Middlebury, and I’ll always be grateful to him for it.”

After Middlebury, Padnos earned his PhD in comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, at the same time teaching English part time at the Woodstock Regional Correctional Facility in Vermont, a few miles down the street from the Bridgewater farmhouse. He wrote a self-deprecating memoir of the experience, called My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun, published in 2004. By that point, Padnos had become restless once again. Disillusioned by the re-election of President George W. Bush, he decided to take the money he’d saved and move to the Middle East to try his hand at journalism. “I was like, I can’t deal with another four years of this nonsense, and I bought the plane ticket to Yemen.”

Despite the gathering presence of al Qaeda in Yemen, the capital city of Sana’a was still a bastion of stability, centered around a historic old city, full of multistory apartment houses with balconies and arches, that has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “I had the most gorgeous apartment in the city for $300 a month,” says Padnos. “I could have lived there forever.” With his natural curiosity, Padnos set about learning Arabic and taking classes at a religious school that promoted an extremist view of Islam. Eventually he wrote a book about the experience, Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen. Widely praised by reviewers, it focuses on the stories of disaffected Muslim youth and their growing gulf with values of the West.

When civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Padnos saw an opportunity to further investigate those themes, and began pitching articles to editors in New York and London. Without a solid track record, however, his pitches fell on deaf ears. He decided to get a leg up by reporting from the region, leaving in the fall of 2012 for Turkey. His father suggested he stop off in Paris on the way, but Padnos declined, saying he would only be gone a few weeks and would visit on his way back. At the time he was in almost daily contact with his mother, whom he was helping buy a new woodstove for the farmhouse in Vermont. When he stopped emailing suddenly, she grew alarmed.

A week later, she got a cryptic email from him, with the subject line “Hey” but no body text.

Then nothing.



 On Padnos’s first night in captivity, amazingly, he was able to wriggle out of his handcuffs and flee out the door of the house in which he was being held. He flagged down a passing minibus, screaming, “Take me to the Free Syrian Army!” The driver took him to an army post, where the soldiers served him tea and falafel. While he was waiting to make a phone call, his kidnappers arrived. The officers released him back into the arms of the men who had beaten him, who then turned him over to the al-Nusra Front, which was then making its headquarters in the city’s children’s hospital.

He was locked in a small hospital room, where he could hear the screams of prisoners being tortured. In his free moments, he turned his situation over and over in his mind, wondering how he could have been so stupid. Finally, it was his turn; one of his captors told him to prepare to be executed in five minutes; then led him down the hall into the torture room, strewn with steel cables and ropes. They put his head in a noose and stood him on a stepladder, with his hands tied behind his back. Then, his captors questioned him for 40 minutes, alternately trying to make him confess he was a CIA agent and grilling him about his sex life in Turkey and Syria. It was the first of many torture sessions Padnos underwent, each time wondering if it would be the last.

“During the torture sessions, you feel like they are in the act of killing you, and you imagine yourself dying,” says Padnos. “And they would do that constantly to me. But if you don’t actually die, you survive.”

Padnos persevered by analyzing his situation, trying to understand what the terrorists were trying to accomplish. From his studies in Islam, he knew one of the central tenets of the faith was humility.

“I understood they were trying to have me acknowledge my own puniness in relation to the powers that rule the universe,” he says. “But what they really want is allegiance to the commanders. They want personal control over you.” From the beginning, they leveled accusations against him for America’s crimes, such as using the atom bomb against the Japanese in World War II, or persecuting Native Americans. “I said, ‘But of course, I know this better than you,’” Padnos says.

But then their narratives would veer off course, his captors telling him, for example, that archaeologists had found Muslim inscriptions in Native American burying grounds, proof that they were Muslims.

“When they talk like this, you know you’ve entered into someone else’s dream,” says Padnos. “And I was being held to account for that dream.” Still, he had empathy for his captors. “They believed I had come to destroy their families, to dismantle their religion, their mosques. So I tried to correct them and disabuse them of this notion,” he says. “But it is also true in a way; we have bombed mosques in Iraq and Afghanistan; we have invaded places they consider sacred.”

The one person during his ordeal he had trouble sympathizing with was an American photographer, Matt Schrier, who was put into the same cell after a few months. Padnos says they developed a dysfunctional relationship, with Schrier taking out his fear and frustrations by screaming in his face and cursing for hours on end. At the insistence of their guards, Schrier converted to Islam, after which, Padnos says,  he received better treatment; Padnos was punished for refusing to convert. Finally, they were moved into another cell in the basement of the department of motor vehicles, where there was a window high up in the wall.

They spent days bending back the grille, practicing climbing up to escape. Finally in the predawn hours during Ramadan, Padnos agreed to let Schrier climb up on his back, with the agreement that he would then turn around and pull Padnos up. Schrier had difficulty squeezing through the window, kicking his legs in a panic to get himself through.

“It was like rock climbing,” says Padnos. “You get to the point in the climb where you could fall at any moment, and when you get to that point, if you panic then you really fall.” After calming Schrier down, Padnos’s cell mate was able to wriggle through the window, and he turned to pull Padnos up. When Padnos was halfway through, however, Schrier panicked again, worried someone was coming. He ran away, promising to find help. When the guards returned, they beat Padnos so hard he couldn’t walk for several days. He waited three weeks in the same cell, waiting for someone to come. He would remain in captivity for more than another year.


The whole time that Padnos was held captive, his family was frantically trying to locate him. Since his father shared Padnos’s last name, which he had used to write his Undercover Muslim book, the family agreed he would take a backseat in the rescue efforts. His mother and several cousins reached out to everyone they could in government. According to Curtis, the FBI seemed genuinely concerned, though limited in its ability to intervene; the State Department, she says,  was not helpful. “They were like, ‘Go away, don’t bother us. What do you expect us to do?’” Curtis says. 

Ironically, when Schrier got out of the country with news of Padnos’s whereabouts, it made the family even more anxious. “If you don’t know anything, you live in a world of wishful thinking,” says Curtis. Knowing he was in the hands of terrorists, however, both of his parents fell into a prolonged depression.

“You can’t survive with a constant high level of anxiety,” says Curtis. “You have to shut down your emotions.” Even so, thoughts of her son constantly emerged. “Every time I was having a wonderful meal with a friend, I’d think to myself, Theo can’t do this,” says Curtis. “That’s when I’d get really sad.”

Solace came unexpectedly from one of the few people in the world who could relate. A month after Padnos was captured, another American journalist named James Foley was also kidnapped by al Qaeda in Syria. Curtis bonded with his mother, Diane, who inspired her with her tenacity. “If anyone was going to get out, it was going to be Jim. She was down in Washington all the time, talking with religious leaders and congresspeople,” she says. “She was just relentless.”

One of the people Foley sought out was David Bradley, the owner of Atlantic Media (publisher of the Atlantic magazine) who had helped free her son when he was previously captured in Libya. In May 2014, Bradley convened a meeting with Foley, Curtis, and parents of three other American hostages to help coordinate their efforts. It has long been official U.S. policy not to pay ransoms for hostages, though unofficially it has done so in the past (and in fact freed American soldier Bowe Bergdahl in a prisoner swap that same month). Bradley began reaching out to officials in Washington, at the same time back-channeling negotiations through Qatar, a country in the Middle East that is friendly to the U.S. but retains ties with al-Qaeda leaders.

By this time, Padnos had been moved into a small, windowless cell in Deir ez-Zor, a city on the other side of the country close to Iraq. There, he spent 200 days in the stifling hot cell, not even large enough for him to stretch out to sleep. His guards slipped him some pieces of paper, and he began writing. As usual, his thoughts turned to the cool woods of Vermont as he began composing a story to explain his captivity to himself. In his story, a small Vermont town called Shepherd’s Crossing—suspiciously similar to the rundown milltown of Bridgewater—suddenly begins undergoing mysterious arson attacks that terrorize the populace. Eventually a cult leader named Hippie Jim comes down from his commune on the hill to help clean up the mess and help the residents.

“This is what happened in Syria in the beginning of the war, where things just began to blow up, and nobody knew who was responsible,” he says. Eventually Hippie Jim begins to garner a following among the disgruntled townsfolk, who look to the neighboring town of Shelton—a posh town of boutiques and tourist restaurants, much like Woodstock—with a mix of anger and envy. The Syrian region Padnos was now living in was rich in both natural resources and anti-government sentiment, not unlike many parts of the U.S. “People feel as though the resources have been stolen from them.”

Originally, Padnos was writing to pass the time, with no hope of anyone else reading the story. As the guards began becoming curious about what he was scribbling, however, he began like Scheherezade in One Thousand and One Nights to tell them the story, explaining his views on their situation, and indulging in their requests to get to the parts with sex and romance. They listened raptly to his tale, softening and asking questions as they did. “They were interested in what I thought of their revolution,” Padnos says. “‘It is good? Is it bad? What do you make of what is going on?’” Some of them became friendlier, giving him occasional prized gifts of oranges and tuna. And every so often, one of them would disappear, killed in the fighting.


If there was any silver lining in Padnos’s situation, it was that he remained in custody of al-Nusra, and not the Islamic State (ISIS), which splintered from al Qaeda in Syria in 2013. As tensions grew between these former allies, Padnos received personal attention from Abu Maria al-Qahtani, the new leader of al Qaeda in Syria, who took Padnos with him when he fled with several hundred fighters to Daraa in far southern Syria near Jordan. For the next several months, Padnos was constantly at his side, unshackled, listening to the sheik as he unburdened himself of his troubles fighting the Americans, the Syrian government, and increasingly his former allies in ISIS. At one point, Padnos again tried to escape, but was again recaptured. He was forced to make a video saying he would be executed in three days, but the blow never came.

James Foley was not so lucky. Unlike Padnos, he was transferred to the custody of ISIS. On August 19, 2014, the terrorists released a grisly YouTube video showing a black-clad jihadist beheading an American dressed in an orange jumpsuit out in the desert. It was Foley. Things began to move quickly after that. Despite the official policy not to ransom hostages, the State Department entered into negotiations through Qatar to get Padnos out. The first glimmer of hope that Curtis allowed herself was when an FBI agent called and asked for his shoe size.

A few days after Foley’s death, the terrorists drove Padnos to a meeting with two United Nations trucks. With little ceremony, they led him into one of them, which drove the three hours to Tel Aviv, Israel. Despite warnings from the FBI to stay in his hotel room that night, Padnos couldn’t contain himself. He left and started running down the beach, ecstatic at the feel of sand beneath his feet. “Suddenly I was aware of the vastness of the world,” he says. “It was mind-blowing.” He immediately began talking to everyone he could—befriending a couple of Canadian tourists and bringing them back to his hotel for late-night boozing.

On one level, he realized that such blind trust was what had gotten him into trouble in the first place. “But on the other, I was aware of the person I wanted to become again, someone who engaged with the world and had an open, loving relationship with people.”

When he flew back to the States, his mother met him at the airport, where the two exhaustedly embraced. Practically the first words out of his mouth were, “I wrote a novel. It’s good—and I can’t wait to get it published.” They spent their first weeks holed up in Curtis’s apartment in Cambridge, avoiding the press, and just reveling in the sudden truth of each other’s presence. Padnos’s captivity had affected the whole family. “It was suddenly as if an enormous stone had been lifted from my shoulders,” says his father. “I suddenly felt like I could stand again, I could smile, I could breathe.”

For the documentary about his ordeal, the filmmakers interviewed Curtis in her farmhouse in Vermont, and nearby they constructed the prison cells where Padnos lived during his captivity. He sits inside them, guilelessly narrating the details of his torture. For Padnos, the shoddiness of the film sets wasn’t wholly different from the experience of being in the cells themselves.

“When you arrive in these places, they are like, ‘This is our Islamic emirate,’ and you go, ‘This little flimsy nothingness? You mean the cosmic battle between Good and Evil is supposed to happen in this crappy little jail cell?’”

Shortly after his return, Padnos moved to Paris, where he rides his bike to visit his father several times a week. There he is working on editing his Vermont novel, hoping to get it published. At the same time, he has returned to journalism, with an article about Muslim youth in Paris set to come out in Rolling Stone this spring; and he is working on a multimedia theater performance about his captivity, which he hopes to get staged in Paris or Berlin.

For his part, Padnos is against U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war. “As soon as we give weapons to Mr. Reasonable over here, 20 minutes later they end up in the hands of ISIS,” he says. While he allows that some particularly brutal terrorist commanders may need to be taken out, for the most part he sees bombing militants as only perpetuating the cycle of violence. “The reason the regime is bombing Aleppo is because we keep giving them missiles,” he says. “If we stopped giving them a target, then women and children would live. Right now 15 million people are living under Bashar al-Assad, and they are still going to university every day. It’s not great but it’s not the end of the world.”

Surprisingly, he is still in touch through Twitter with some of his captors, whom he is trying to convince to leave the jihad. “These guys have moms and kids and wives,” he says. “They want to leave, but they don’t have the money.” As outwardly unaffected as he seems from his experience, his parents do see a new cautiousness and maturity in his outlook; his actions are less headstrong, more thoughtful. “He has always been a risk-taker, but he is not going to endanger himself again,” says Curtis. “I am more worried about him riding his bike in Paris at this point.”

One thing that has not changed, however, is the impulse that brought him to Syria in the first place—a desire to understand a very complicated part of the world, and translate it into terms that the average American can understand. “I tell him he is the most important person in the world,” says his father. “He is the one person who has seen the belly of the beast, and knows what it’s like from the inside. He can speak to them in their language, and speak to us in our language. It’s what the world needs to hear.”

Disruption in the Classroom


It was just before lunch as Alex Bickart loped down a relatively quiet hallway in his small Vermont high school, his thoughts elsewhere, when he was startled by his guidance counselor, who wanted a word with him. (“My first thought was, ‘Oh God, what’s happened?’” Alex recalled.) 

This was early last September at Peoples Academy, a regional high school in Morrisville, Vermont, a half hour’s drive north of Montpelier. The school serves about 250 students from eight rural communities; Alex’s town, Elmore, is among the smallest. “Our downtown,” he noted, “is five buildings.”

Alex stands out. He’s six feet, seven inches tall, with a wide range of interests: he skis, plays tennis, and competed last year in the Science Olympiad and the Vermont Envirothon, in which student teams explore natural-resource issues. And that September morning, his counselor had pegged him to be an ideal candidate for a rather nontraditional learning initiative. Which is how he wound up in a small, windowless room meeting with Bill Rich, a 1999 graduate of the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English and the coordinator for the Vermont Bread Loaf Teacher Network. (Now 23 years old, the network fosters year-round collaboration for teachers educated at Bread Loaf; Rich coordinates the group of educators working in Vermont.)   

An education consultant, Bill Rich easily connects with young people—he has taught English in both middle and high schools—and he struck Alex as affable and chatty while describing a yearlong, full-credit course that was being made available to a select group of Vermont students.

What Rich described was unlike anything Alex had ever heard before—students would be responsible for not only designing their own curriculum, but deciding what they would study. “And then he was gone,” said Alex, “and I was left with a choice: continue with the mind-numbing repetition that is every English class ever, or take a risk on this mysterious program that seemed to promise so much?”

Ultimately, he said, it wasn’t much of a choice at all, and a few weeks later he found himself with 20 other students who had traveled to Middlebury College—most from schools in or near Addison County, plus three who are homeschooled—in kicking off the second year of this pilot project titled “What’s the Story?” Designed and run by the Vermont Bread Loaf Teacher Network in collaboration with the College, the project flips the traditional approach to high school courses: Students choose their topics (the one requirement is that they involve “work toward positive change”) and design their curriculum, working in multiage, multischool teams; teachers act as coaches or mentors from the sidelines.

During the fall, students would research, blog about, and develop their topic idea, with feedback from adult volunteers. On an overnight retreat in late October, the students would pitch their ideas in short, TED Talk–style presentations. They’d then form into five teams. Each team would choose a single topic, on which its members would work—theoretically, at least—in creative, technology-aided collaboration until spring.

By design, each project should be different than any other, but to shape and assess everyone’s learning, Rich and Tim O’Leary, an English teacher at Middlebury Union High School and 2007 Bread Loaf grad, had devised specific academic standards that each student was required to meet. To pass, every student would have to show they’d developed skills, knowledge, and experience in communicating, creative problem-solving, self-directed learning, savvy use of multimedia, collaboration, and active citizenship.

In his consulting work, Rich uses brain science to help schools design personalized learning plans. “The big challenge,” he says, “is to make sure the students are really emotionally engaged in the work they’re doing. The ideal is, how do we design learning so that the work students do is going to prepare them for the rest of their lives?”


Bill Rich, MA English '99

Bill Rich, MA English ’99

What’s the Story?” was developed in 2014–15, as an elective that involved 11 students from five Vermont high schools, each doing an individual project on family farming. Last year the project expanded into a full-credit course on student-selected topics; 10 teachers from the Vermont Bread Loaf Teacher Network acted as mentors to the teams, with about 60 community volunteers also involved, including some College staff. Most of the volunteers helped individual students refine their initial topic interests during the early “I-Search” phase; the adult responders were urged to ask “probing or clarifying questions,” to suggest resources, to “help push their thinking.”

Today, as the 2016-17 school year begins, the Vermont Bread Loaf Teacher Network hopes to keep growing its course, into what could become a model—statewide, even nationally—for the effort to make high school education more meaningful—and memorable.

“We’ve known for years that not all children are best served by sitting in the classroom in rows and having the teacher lecture them, and we’ve seen a tremendous change in the ways that people can access knowledge,” notes David Sharpe, a retired teacher who chairs the Vermont House Committee on Education as a state representative from Bristol. “The role of teachers is changing, from delivering pedagogical information to coaching students. The model where students pick a subject to research it and make a presentation—that’s the type of model that I think education is moving toward.”

Vermont has put muscle behind that movement, with two recent changes in education law and policy. After years of failed efforts to promote creative change in how high schools deliver education, in 2013 the Legislature enacted Act 77, the Flexible Pathways Initiative. The law now requires that every high schooler get the chance to combine learning experiences from within and outside the school classroom, in personalized ways that may propel more young Vermonters toward postsecondary success.

Also in 2013, the state made its education standards proficiency-based. Rather than just passing classes, in order to graduate students will have to show they’ve gained actual skills, knowledge, and experience. Vermont is leaving it to individual schools to decide how they’ll do that, but has required that new graduation requirements be in place for the Class of 2020.   

Bill Rich calls those two changes a “double helix, of personalization and standards-based learning.” The key question, he says, is “how do we make high school an environment where there really is personalization, but we don’t lose the standards?”

Most students who attend Middlebury’s graduate School of English are educators working toward master’s degrees, and for these normally harried schoolteachers, Bread Loaf becomes a kind of think tank, an incubator for new ideas—and up on the mountain campus one summer afternoon in 2014, a group of Vermont teachers sat on a lawn and started talking about a new type of course.

The time was right, with the passage of Act 77 and the change in standards, and the College had brought in a sizable grant from a donor who wanted to support a project aimed at social change in Vermont. The teachers sketched out a course that could be based, in creative ways, on multimedia storytelling.

“We weren’t sure it was going to take off and work,” Rich recalls. “We underestimated the power of our design.”

“To me, the power of ‘What’s the Story?’—and where it could impact schools and school systems significantly—is in its focus on students taking the lead, and constructing their own learning,” observes Peter Burrows, the superintendent of schools in Middlebury and its surrounding small communities. Burrows has been closely involved with the project and says it’s hard to legislate the kind of change within schools that Act 77 is calling for—but “What’s the Story?” may be helping point the way. 

“When you look at how ‘What’s the Story?’ has been developed and designed, students are provided with a structure,” he notes, “but within that structure, there is immense responsibility they have, to construct something meaningful to them. And they have to present that, so there’s action involved as well, which is a critical piece of what needs to happen.”


By April, the students had been working—some more than others—on their projects for several months. Team members often live in different communities—one resides up in Derby, on the Canadian border—so most of their meetings are virtual, using Skype, email, or other digital tools to stay in touch. But with deadlines looming, the teams made weekend plans to convene with their mentors in central locations to gauge their progress. Almost immediately, it was clear that some teams were doing just fine; others were struggling.

In a classroom at Middlebury Union High School, one team was focused on the state’s recent decision to cut the number of emergency dispatch centers, from four centers to two. The project idea came from Brennan Bordonaro, a soft-spoken sophomore from rural Hancock, which sits along the eastern border of Addison County, just down the hill from the Snow Bowl. That day, Bordonaro was wearing a Vermont Fire Academy ball cap; he’s been a member of his local fire department since he was 14. He’s also a hunter, a fisherman, and a member of the regional ambulance crew. His initial take on the dispatch-center cuts, he said, came from talking with locals in Hancock, other volunteers like himself.

“I went into this very one-sided—I didn’t know the other side,” he admitted. As his team gathered information and interviewed people like the state’s public safety commissioner, however, his viewpoint expanded.

“I think the real issue is that neither side talks to the other side. There just isn’t enough communication,” he said. “Each side has their own viewpoint, and neither is listening to the other.”

In the next room, teacher/mentor Ben Krahn, MA English ’09, seemed frustrated with a team that hadn’t yet refined its vague interest in solar power. The students needed to put a video together, but they didn’t know where to begin.

“I think we need to get messy,” Krahn urged. “Let’s figure out the beginning—what does the beginning look like? Is it a shot of something, or someone talking? Let’s figure out how to start it.”

There wasn’t much response. But about 25 miles away at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, another team was closing in fast on its goal.

“Breaking Binary” was this group’s title. Its three members, two from CVU and a homeschooled middle schooler, were in the media lab finishing a film on how schools can broaden perspectives and vocabulary around gender identity. Their blog was full of probing reflections, and in a week their film would win one of the top awards at the second annual Freedom & Unity youth film festival in Montpelier.

“I’ve worked really, really hard on this—I’ve been in here at least an hour and a half every day since January,” said CVU junior Eva Rocheleau, as classmate Becca Cottrell prepared to record a voiceover.


Fiona Nelson and Eva Rocheleau

“So how,” Cottrell read, “do we as teachers, students, friends, and leaders support a safe and accepting school community where everyone can thrive, regardless of gender identity or expression?”

Hearing the playback, CVU teacher/mentor Emily Rinkema, MA English ’03, exclaimed, “Perfect!”

Later, Rinkema reflected on what she’s witnessed during the year. “We don’t always know what a student is really learning, and independent study isn’t always a well-targeted learning experience,” she said. “With this, we really see the growth. We have particular targets—and they’re getting feedback along the way.”

Dark-eyed and full of ideas, Eva Rocheleau is involved with a school club called Think Tank, which works to promote education reform. She also plays Ultimate Frisbee and sings world folk music with Village Harmony, a summertime touring choral program for teens. When she started the I-Search process, Rocheleau was first interested in the threats facing honeybees—but when she shifted her focus to gender identity, she discovered a new-found passion for the subject.

“I have to stop and remind myself, ‘Oh, I’m going to get credit for this amazing experience that’s changing my life?’ This is what I want to do,” she said. “I want to make activism documentaries. So it was almost overwhelmingly exciting for me to do that.”

Rinkema, Rocheleau’s mentor, has seen this transformation in students before. “There’s something that happens occasionally, where a course stops being a course for a student,” she said. “Partway through the first semester, that happened for Eva.”

At the third school, in South Burlington, Bill Rich was helping guide Alex Bickart’s group, which was struggling to pull together its work on foster parenting in Vermont. Later, Rich put things in perspective.

“They’re adolescents,” he said. “When given autonomy, they tend to mess up a little. It’s okay; let them mess up. Give them some feedback. It’s remarkable how much they learn about themselves when they don’t have us hovering over them the whole time, telling them what to do.”


After he was introduced to “What’s the Story?” during its first year, Bill Koulopoulos, the College’s director of academic technology, decided to make the course the focus of his dissertation for an educational doctorate at Columbia University.

“For a teacher, this is Shangri-La,” he explains, “because it brings together 21st-century skills where students learn to collaborate, learn to communicate, learn critical thinking, and they create. You provide them with the equipment, you have people from different backgrounds giving them feedback, they move from their world to the outside world, and the final product is something that could be used to advocate for change. At this young age.”

In May came the final phase. During their last overnight retreat at a center in Lincoln earlier in the month, the teams previewed their work to each other. Then they were challenged to take it to the outside world, advocating for change in some way.

On a Saturday morning, Eva Rocheleau and teammate Fiona Nelson arrived at U-32 High School in East Montpelier to lead a workshop at the Queer and Allied Youth Summit, organized by the nonprofit organization Outright Vermont. After showing “Breaking Binary,” their 10-minute film, Rocheleau explained to a classroom of high schoolers drawn from around the state the difference between first-order and second-order change.

“First order is something you can change really easily,” she said. “Second-order change might take a team of people. It might take months or years.”

She asked, “What tactics have you seen that have worked, when you want to make change?” Noting answers and ideas on a whiteboard, she asked about identifying change makers to talk with. How do you set up a conversation? What can make it a success?

A few days later, another presentation’s setting could hardly be more different. It was the monthly meeting of the Hancock Fire Department. In a small room behind the parked fire engines, 10 company members sat around a table in sweatshirts, flannel shirts, and ball caps. Brennan Bordonaro and teammate Brynna Kearns, also a sophomore at Middlebury Union, presented their film on the emergency dispatch cuts.

“We spent about eight months doing research,” Bordonaro told the firefighters. “The consolidation isn’t the biggest issue—it’s communication between departments when there is an emergency.”

There were some questions, some discussion. Then one firefighter said, “You did a good job.”

“Yeah—you did an excellent job,” added the chief, Jacques Veilleux, before razzing his fellow volunteer firefighter. “I take it the other three did all the work?” Bordonaro smiled. He didn’t have to say that he had, in fact, worked very hard.


Nearing the point of no return, the team with an interest in solar power found a late focus: net-zero homes, which produce as much energy as they consume. They finished their project just in time, though Indigo Woods, a Middlebury Union High School junior who wound up working by herself on the project’s website, wasn’t sure they’d make it.

“Different members had different ideas about how to approach the project, and what the topic should be,” Indigo said. “Sometimes it didn’t seem like we were all on the same page…but in the end, we did pull it together. And I think I learned a lot about working with people.”

Alex Bickart had a similar thought. “Beyond high school, if you’re doing a project with someone it’s not going to be a four-day thing—you’re going to be working with these people for months. It was really useful to figure out how that works.”

In late May, Tim O’Leary, the Bread Loaf alumnus who is the project’s lead teacher, turned his ninth-grade classroom at Middlebury Union over to Ella Nagy-Benson, a local tenth grader whose team’s project focused on Act 77, the Flexible Pathways Initiative. Her goal was partly to spark interest among the ninth graders in joining “What’s the Story?” next year.

“It never feels like school when you’re working on your project because you’re working on something you care about, and you’re treated more like an adult,” Nagy-Benson told them after showing her team’s film. A shy, slender Nordic skier, lacrosse player, and classical pianist, Nagy-Benson said that her participation in the course had helped her grow more confident.

“At the beginning,” Nagy-Benson told the class, “you don’t think you could do something like that, but you’re forced to step out of your comfort zone. If you’re looking to get more out of your education, I would strongly recommend ‘What’s the Story?’”

Nobody responded. There were no questions, and no one signed up. Later, O’Leary reflected on why.

“These are ninth graders—I’m pretty sure they’ve never before been invited into a conversation about their own learning.” What seems to work better, he said, is to identify a student who seems like a prospect, as Alex Bickart had been identified, then have a talk with him or her.

“So much of what we do is to give students a means of creating agency,” O’Leary said. “I think in the nature of that individual conversation, the student can see themselves as an individual.”

As the school year ended, Dixie Goswami wrote in an email that the project is “making waves and making history.” A retired professor—at Clemson and Bread Loaf—who never seems retired at all, Goswami directs the nationwide Bread Loaf Teacher Network; she’s its lead promoter of new ideas and projects.

“One way it’s making history,” she wrote, “is by giving learning opportunities and agency to young people who don’t have private resources, to do these things that are quite routine in elite institutions. The other way is by demonstrating what you can do as a member of a network that includes Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf School of English, with local communities and with schools that include economically diverse populations, forming a network that works.

“That’s a model for liberal education all over this country.”


With summer vacation a few days away, Ben Krahn, the English teacher at Middlebury Union High School, opened a desk drawer in his classroom, lifted out a stack of term papers, and dropped them back in with a thunk.“The paper a student writes: it goes to us and that’s it,” he said. “These videos, like ‘Breaking Binary’: the most powerful audience for these is other students.”

Among the 21 students who showed up for the project’s first September gathering, only one dropped out. All the rest passed. “In September, they were deer in the headlights,” Krahn recalled, “and when we finished in May, the kids had ownership. Of everything.”

“What’s the Story?” may not be right for every student, Krahn said, but “I think the balance of this and the traditional course could be a real model. ‘What’s the Story?’ doesn’t replace everything—but it gives kids practice in certain skills that you get in the traditional classroom, but you get better in a project like this.”

Krahn and his wife, Courtney, a teacher at the local middle school, met as Bread Loaf grad students; now they’re parenting two preschoolers, and they both spend the school year juggling the unceasing demands on teachers today. Courtney Krahn shared a note she had received from a student she worked with, in both her regular classroom and through “What’s the Story?”

“You have one of the hardest and most underappreciated jobs in the world,” wrote middle schooler Emily Pecsok. “After seeing how much you impacted my life, I realized I really want to become a teacher so maybe one day I can help a student in the same ways you helped me.”

To Courtney Krahn, that note said something important—and it wasn’t about her. “I think this letter speaks to how deeply students crave meaningful, intelligent and social connections,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “Because we spent time in carpools and conference calls together; because we worked together in real environments—coffee shops, public libraries; because we existed on equal playing fields; and because our work was real, she suddenly felt a different connection.

“In an educational world where sticky notes cover my desk, Common Core standards are noted on all handouts, and I’m tasked with juggling the role of teacher, nutritionist, nurse, parent, therapist and disciplinarian in the span of an 80-minute English class, there is something sacred to be found at the heart of ‘What’s the Story?’”

John Elder Turns the Page


As he speaks of life in retirement, John Elder’s voice brims with serene delight. His students and colleagues have come to recognize this note as a hallmark of the man, both inside and outside of classrooms, during his four decades at the College. Whether leading a discussion or a hike, sharing ideas or food, reciting poems or playing a game of Go, he radiates a sense of equanimity and zest.

In conversations we’ve shared over the course of 30 years, I’ve noticed how often John begins a sentence by saying, “It’s interesting.” He uses the phrase often, this summer of 2016, as he answers questions about his life. “You know, it’s interesting,” he tells me, “how many of my greatest blessings have arrived seemingly by chance.” The blessing he mentions first is his wife, Rita, whom he met in the choir at Pomona College, where both were undergraduates. 

We are sitting in his study, in the zero-net-energy house that he and Rita arranged to have built for their retirement, in the town of Bristol, 12 miles from Middlebury. John has folded his six-foot-two frame into a chair flanked by stacks of books, letters, news clippings weighted down by a granite cobble, and yellow legal pads inscribed with his minuscule script. A faint smile reveals his amusement at being interviewed by an old friend. As he ponders his responses, which emerge in shapely paragraphs, he gazes across the room, his eyes the blue-green of ocean. 

The walls display tokens of his past and current passions—broadsides of poems by Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, a sheet of Japanese calligraphy, an Ansel Adams photograph of Yosemite Valley, three banjos. A map of the nearby town of Starksboro, where the Elder family tends a sugarbush, hangs next to a map of Connemara, in western Ireland, where John and Rita have gone exploring in recent years. A meditation mat rests on the floor, a book about mysticism on the desk.

This super-insulated new house, with 30 solar panels on the roof and an electric car in the garage, is only a few blocks away from the handsome, drafty, largely wood-heated Victorian where John and Rita reared their three children. They had hoped to live out their days in that beloved old house, but then Rita was diagnosed with an illness that would, over time, make the many stairs and narrow hallways a challenge. So they decided to build an accessible home to accommodate her needs. “And my eventual needs, as well,” John adds, rubbing his knees, which have carried him on thousands of miles of walks and runs.   

The move into a sun-powered, handicap-friendly house is one in a sequence of postretirement surprises that John describes in Picking Up the Flute, his captivating memoir of this new phase in married life. The book’s title alludes to another of the surprises—learning to play Irish music with Rita, she on a concertina, he on a wooden flute. Each chapter of the memoir features a reel, jig, or other traditional tune—all of which can be heard, performed by John, on his website: www.johnelderauthor.com.

These lively, haunting tunes are only the latest genre of music that John and Rita have shared. Both were classically trained, she on the piano and he on the French horn, and both considered attending a conservatory. Instead, each eventually chose to pursue a degree in liberal arts—which was how they wound up singing together at Pomona College.

“I planned to study philosophy,” John recalls, “but I took a class with a wonderful English professor, who drew me into the field in which I’ve spent the rest of my life. That’s one of those blessings that came to me by chance. I met the right teacher at the right moment.”

As a doctoral student at Yale, John was guided by another gifted teacher, Charles N. Feidelson Jr., his thesis director. “He modeled for me how to be a scholar who reads literature for insight into human existence.”

On completing his PhD, instead of seeking a position at a research university, such as Yale, John applied to liberal arts colleges that resembled Pomona in focusing on undergraduate education. At the top of his list was Middlebury. So he gladly accepted an invitation to join the faculty there in the fall of 1973, and he stayed until his retirement in 2010. During those years he served stints as chair of English and director of environmental studies, taught regularly in the Bread Loaf School of English, pioneered community-based courses, published a series of important books, and rose through the ranks to become Stewart Professor and finally College Professor. The latter title, which entailed no departmental affiliation, acknowledged the breadth of John’s teaching, writing, and service.

He had not expected to stay at Middlebury for his entire career. At first, he and Rita assumed that after a few years in Vermont they would return to California. They had both grown up in the Bay Area, where their families still lived. They had imprinted on the Western landscape, which made the Green Mountains seem humble, and they had been shaped by the cosmopolitan, freewheeling coastal culture, which made the ways of New England seem guarded. 

But after moving to the neighborly town of Bristol, joining community groups, and shepherding three children through school, they came to feel at ease among Vermonters. They also came to appreciate the surrounding landscape, with its richly layered human and natural history. From their house they could hike into mountains crisscrossed with tumbled stone walls and pockmarked with cellar holes from vanished farms, yet wild enough to harbor black bears and bobcats. A steep, forested ridge, visible from their back door, would earn official designation as the Bristol Cliffs Wilderness Area.

Over time, John came to see Vermont, along with much of New England, as a “recovering wilderness,” where cleared fields, long abandoned, had reverted to woods, and long-absent wildlife had returned—not only bears and bobcats but also moose, coyotes, and catamounts. He traces these discoveries about his adopted place in Reading the Mountains of Home. This is perhaps the finest of his dozen books, in the way it braids together history, science, indigenous lore, family stories, and tributes to the literature that has shaped his understanding.

The earliest of those literary influences was the Bible, which his father, a Baptist minister, read aloud at the dinner table. “I loved the King James Bible,” John tells me. “It was so much livelier than what we were reading in school. The stories were so juicy, the language so intriguing.” In The Frog Run, a personal narrative that ranges from discovering Zen to harvesting maple syrup, he reports that “Scriptures like the Psalms grounded my earliest spiritual experiences, inspired my first love of reading, and enhanced my appreciation of the natural world.”

Another early influence was Henry David Thoreau. “In high school I became fascinated by wilderness,” John says. “I went to the library and read all the Sierra Club books, with their gorgeous photos. They kindled in me a reverence for nature that was an extension of my reverence for the Bible. Then at 15, I was given a copy of Walden, and it came as a revelation. It opened me to the American nature writing tradition, which I have explored ever since.”

elderdetailOne fruit of that exploration is The Norton Book of Nature Writing, which John coedited with essayist Robert Finch. This pioneering anthology has helped to foster a vigorous field of research and teaching. Two years after the first edition appeared, and partly through its influence, a group of scholars and writers founded the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. John has served on the organization’s board ever since, including one term as president, while membership grew to some 1,500, drawn from 30 countries.

In addition to Thoreau and his American successors, John counts among his literary guides the classical authors of the pastoral tradition, such as Ovid and Virgil, as well as the English Romantics, especially Wordsworth, and Japanese haiku masters such as Bashō. But no writer has had a deeper impact on his reading of landscape than Robert Frost. During the latter decades of his life, the celebrated poet spent part of every year just up the road from Middlebury, in the village of Ripton, near the Bread Loaf campus. From that vantage, he observed nature and people with an eye “versed in country things”—to borrow a phrase from one of his poems—and recorded his findings in memorable verse.

“Another of my blessings,” John says, “is to live in a place that has been brought into art by a great writer.” He knows much of Frost by heart, including the long, profound poem “Directive,” which frames the sequence of hikes recounted in Reading the Mountains of Home. “Reflecting about this poem,” John explains in the introduction, “has helped me understand how the mountains around our home assumed their present form, as well as what it might mean to identify with such a place on earth.”

As John and Rita came to identify with their adopted home in Vermont, the notion of moving back to California faded away. Of all the inducements for staying, the ones John mentions most often are the rewards of teaching at Middlebury, especially the chance to work with inquisitive, idealistic students. “I felt so well suited, and so well supported, in my work at the College,” he says. Within this “community of learners,” he was free to follow his intellectual path wherever it led—to nature writing and environmental studies, to coteaching with scientists, to leading classes on Vermont’s Long Trail or local farms, to studying Japanese and spending a sabbatical in Kyoto, to directing Bread Loaf programs in New Mexico and Alaska.

“Unlike so many New England colleges,” he notes, “Middlebury wasn’t founded by a church but by a town, with the intention of educating youth to lead meaningful and useful lives.” Judging by emails sent to me by a few of his former students, John has fulfilled that purpose splendidly.

“Unconditional love is a strong current that runs through John’s teaching,” writes Byron Rath ’10, who took a course with John entitled Farm Stories. “There’s something about his love for literature and teaching that’s renewing.” Rath moved to Vermont from rural Missouri, and often felt out of place among students from big cities and private schools, but through John’s class, he recalls, “I came to understand my upbringing as a strength.” Studying the writing of Wendell Berry and other agrarians gave him a sense of purpose, which has led him to his current position with the Soil Health Institute, a nonprofit devoted to stewardship of the world’s fertile land. 

After graduating from Middlebury, Alvin Ung ’94 returned to his native Malaysia, where he works as a consultant in leadership development. During his first year at the College he felt lost, and might have left, had he not found a mentor. “John saw something in me that I did not see in myself,” Ung writes. He was astounded when this celebrated professor agreed to direct his senior thesis. “Most of the time he left me breathless—literally—because he had this habit of asking me to walk the trails near the College while discussing my drafts. He remembered the rickety structure of my papers and he proposed revisions while he named the trees around us. He himself is a tree offering shade to many. Now I’m spending the rest of my life learning to live out his values.”

As a senior, Corinne Almquist ’09 took a class with John focusing on American food culture, which opened her eyes to the issue of malnutrition in poor communities. In her first year out of college, she created a gleaning program in Addison County to provide fresh, local food to low-income families. Now, as a midwife and women’s health nurse practitioner, she writes that “one of John’s greatest gifts is his ability to find the seed of an idea in his students and help nurture it to become something so much larger.” Having recently visited him, she is reminded that “even a 10-minute conversation with John makes the world feel more connected, more precious, and more replete with wonder.”

John Schubert ’80, recently retired from the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness ranger, remembers taking John’s seminar called the Literature of Attentiveness to Nature. He writes, “Over the decades, I have often reflected that the example of John’s life inspired me to live a fuller, more sincere, generous, humor-filled and kinder life of my own. In short, simply who he is inspires me to be a better person.”

Another Forest Service veteran among John’s former students is Tom Van de Water ’83, who teaches high school science in the Adirondacks during the academic year, and during the summer works as a fire lookout in Idaho. “From my freshman seminar at Middlebury to my senior thesis,” he writes, “John shaped the direction of my life. He modeled how to read closely, listen, question, pay attention to detail, and work hard with a sincerity and love that encouraged, inspired, and awed us.” Van de Water remembers going on a 10-mile charity run with John, talking the whole way, and also remembers bicycling to the Elders’ house in Bristol, where Rita would greet him with a warm bowl of soup. 

At the beginning of a course entitled A Portrait of a Vermont Town, Aylie Baker ’09 recalls, John told the students “we were doing something that hadn’t been done before, and he didn’t know how it would turn out.” It turned out quite well. Through interviews and storytelling, they learned about the community of Starksboro and helped the residents achieve a deeper sense of place.  She came away with the feeling that “if we listen deeply enough we might catch the echoes of a past place and time and begin to understand how it resonates into the present. Through this process I think we all learned that it matters where we direct our listening and who we listen to.”  Today, as a graduate teaching fellow at the University of Oregon, she credits that experience with stoking her interest in community storytelling.

Harrison Hobart, MA English ’12, who left a business career in his middle years to become a teacher, studied with John at the Bread Loaf School of English. He writes that “John adeptly applied the tools of a master teacher: the clear-minded capacity to listen and understand each student and a literary fluency born of a deep immersion and personal engagement—and fostered them in us. I experienced more healing and growth in that summer than at any other time in my life. Never have I been so encouraged to put as much of myself, my best, courageous, and chastened self into the world.”

To suggest John’s impact on past and current colleagues, one example must suffice. Amy Seidl, who teaches now at the University of Vermont, began her career at Middlebury. “I saw how much John loved—a term I believe he would use—the study of the environment. He loved thinking about it historically, politically, and literarily,” she writes. “This holistic and truly loving view is one I try to emulate.”


Ironically, the very intensity of John’s engagement with students helped prompt his decision to retire at the relatively early age of 63. After graduating, many students keep in touch with him, and some become lifelong friends. He recommends them for jobs and graduate programs; attends their weddings, concerts, and plays; reads their manuscripts; and faithfully answers their letters, emails, and phone calls. “While I treasure every one,” he explains, “I felt I had all the former students my life could hold. I retired early out of a desire to encounter this next phase in my life actively. I liked the idea of drawing a line, stepping over it, and seeing what might be on the other side.”

In what he calls the “spacious world of retirement” he has found much of interest. Not only the adventure of building a house and playing Irish music but also doing carpentry with twin grandsons, celebrating the birth of a third grandson, watching his three children flourish in their careers, studying Spanish and ancient Chinese philosophy, carving wooden spoons, baking bread, and memorizing more poetry. He regularly offers courses in a Bristol initiative called Hogback Community College. “It’s neighbors teaching neighbors,” he says. “We share our knowledge with one another.” John’s own classes have included an evening session on Emily Dickinson at the bakery and a several-day writing workshop at a conserved forest in town.

He has undertaken these ventures out of the same desire that led him to regularly create new courses at Middlebury and to survey the mountains of Vermont. One of his favorite Zen aphorisms says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” With characteristic modesty, he says, “I am a very good beginner, but only a middling achiever. I love launching into new activities.” While his memory does not grasp Irish tunes as quickly as it once grasped classical music, and his fingers are not as supple on the flute as they were on the French horn, and his back is not as fit for splitting wood or his legs for clambering over rough trails as they were when he was a young man, he perseveres in walking, sugaring, making music, and following every other path of discovery. Along with his new activities, John continues the spiritual search that led him from a Southern Baptist upbringing to conscientious objection during the Vietnam War, then to Quakerism, Zen Buddhism, and contemplative traditions of East and West. He continues to serve on the Bristol Planning Commission and on the boards of Sterling College and Vermont Family Forests. The Elders’ own family forest is the 142-acre sugarbush they call Maggie Brook, where three generations harvest Earth’s sweetness.


Earlier in this record-hot summer of 2016, at a reading from Picking Up the Flute, John told the audience: “Our forests are changing under the stress of global warming. As temperatures rise, sugar maples may not be able to regenerate. Animals and plants will be forced to move farther north, or some will disappear entirely. So I often feel grief when I think about the future of this land. But if you love a place or a person, and they fall ill, you don’t love them the less. In fact, you love them more.” His words contained a truth applicable to any place or person, but one could sense that the person he had chiefly in mind was Rita, and the place was his Vermont home ground.

“Grace, as our ancestors affirmed, is ultimately what sustains every good thing in our lives,” he declares in Reading the Mountains of Home. When I quote this passage to him, he remarks, “I’ve been criticized for using words such as grace and sacred in my writing, but I refuse to give them up, because they point to things that are of utmost importance. I do believe in grace. I don’t have the theology to justify it, but I think we receive gifts from the universe.” Surely John is one such gift—for his family and friends, his colleagues, his readers, and above all his students.

“Though writing remains for me such an engrossing practice,” he says, “teaching has always been my main calling.” What has he most enjoyed about his vocation? He smiles, remembering. “A class begins as a collection of individuals. But then, as you explore ideas and texts together, a moment comes when everyone cares about everyone else’s learning, and a community forms. One can feel it happening—a kind of liftoff, as if we’re taking flight together, all singing the same tune. Together, we achieve understanding that none of us could achieve in isolation. In those moments, teaching is bliss.”

In Conversation with President Laurie L. Patton



Laurie Patton is no longer a new president. That designation came to a symbolic end on July 1, the beginning of her second year occupying the chief executive’s office on the third floor of Old Chapel. But she stopped seeming like a new president well before that. Was it when she presided over Middlebury’s 215th Commencement in May? Or when she welcomed alumni to campus in June? Or did her newness gradually fade over the course of her first year as she stepped into the classroom to guest lecture for colleagues? As she expertly presided over community conversations, large and small? As she crisscrossed the country and the oceans getting to know alumni who, in her words, are “responsible for building this place that I love so much”?

Honestly, it doesn’t matter when Patton ceased to be a new president. What matters is that she now has the perspective to discuss what it means to be president of this institution, and the experience to understand how it is shaping her and she it.

Over two long interviews in her Old Chapel office—the first in July and the second in September—supplemented with shorter conversations and through email exchanges in the intervening months, Patton spoke with Middlebury Magazine about the challenges of the job, the evolution of higher education and liberal learning, and what a future Middlebury may look like. This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.        

Middlebury is a very different institution today from the one many alumni experienced as recently as 10 or 15 years ago. How has our growth changed the nature of what it means to be
Middlebury’s president?

A new insight I’ve developed over the past year is that a president has to decide in any given moment—of conversation, of decision making—whether we’re big or we’re small, and whether the value is to be big or small. So when it comes to efficiency of systems, we need to think like a more complex institution, and we are getting there. The “small” has to do with the values that we share—how we make decisions, how we communicate. I don’t mean the systems of communication—they need to assume complexity—but rather the tone of communication, so I think those are all more village-type values that also make a difference.

What challenges does this present?

We need to be careful that we don’t undergo mission creep, which is a difficult thing for a complex institution. It’s one of our biggest challenges—that everything will be relevant to us. We also have to stay confident about the fact that we don’t look like a traditional liberal arts college and we don’t look like a traditional university. We are neither.  Most people, even traditional folks and Middlebury folks from 50 years ago, really like the idea of Middlebury as a newly complex institution. I think even in the DNA from 50 years ago—having spent time last summer with the Class of ’66—there’s a real excitement about that. There’s real engagement and there’s an expectation that new complexity will yield positive results. However, there’s also some anxiety about it, and as a president, you have to manage that as well.

I’m curious to know your opinion on why issues of race and inclusivity blossomed across the higher ed landscape last year?

I believe that Ferguson and other events around police profiling and police treatment of people of color sparked it. A lot of the events on the national scale heightened what was already there on campuses, and it allowed students to push on certain kinds of agendas of inclusion that they may not have been so activist around in the past. I think that’s number one. Number two, I believe it was a tipping point for things that had been building on campuses, and what we are seeing in higher education is a place where we created numerical inclusivity but were not as aware of the systems of support that we needed to put into place to really manage that, and there are any number of models.

I think one of the hardest things about this issue is that there’s no quick fix . . .

I agree, I don’t think there’s one single answer to how you build inclusivity on campus. You just can’t be competitive around every single metric. I believe that would be an ill-advised way to move forward. I do think that it would be incredibly important to make sure that each campus’s approach to inclusivity is true to its character and true to its values. So with Middlebury, we are of course far more diverse than we were even 20 years ago, and certainly 30 years ago. We continue to be more diverse partly because that’s a value for me. However, I’ve said on a number of different occasions I don’t think that fixating on numbers is the right thing. What I am going to fixate on is making sure that we have the support systems in place for the folks that are here, including building on things we’re doing right now.

This fall, you’ve spoken about teaching students to become resilient in the public sphere, even giving this skill a name: rhetorical resilience . . .

It’s both a skill and a disposition, and if we are to live up to our educational mission, it’s incumbent upon us to cultivate this ethic. To do so, we need to figure out how to make our public spaces more inclusive of everyone and to have these spaces be the place for rigorous, constructive, free speech.

How do you move from saying you want to do this to putting it into action?

Well, as long as I’m here, I want to have arguers come together. I want a team of arguers who are committed to each other, who love to argue, who are colleagues, to show students how to engage in typical conversations across difference. It’s an important value for us, and I want to become the place where students really learn how to have those tough conversations. I think we will be able to do that. I’m pushing for constructive debate. I don’t even care if it’s civil, as long as it’s constructive.

I firmly believe that we have the DNA to make this happen. Many Middlebury students are already there, but can we be even more like that? Can we make it an explicit value? That’s where I really want to take it.

Well, from one hard topic to another to another: financial sustainability. What are our challenges  as an institution and what are we doing to meet these challenges?

The simple answer is that we’re spending more than we’re taking in. And so, over the next five years we are committed to achieving a new level of financial sustainability. It’s a big project, it’s a hard project, and we have to execute on it. It’s our number one challenge right now, but it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not a crisis. So how do you create an ethos of fiscal efficiency and discipline when it’s not a crisis? How do you create that discipline that we simply need for the future?

The plan we’ve created, with the support of the Board of Trustees, uses several different levers to both hold costs flat in a number of different areas while making sure that our focus on income generation and fundraising remains as aggressive as it can possibly be.

And I must state the obvious: we must do this in a way that is consistent with our values.

On the fundraising front, you identified three top priorities for your first year: financial aid, annual giving, and the president’s discretionary fund. How did you settle on those and what is our outlook for fundraising?

Well, to begin with, financial aid—or what I prefer to call student funding with purpose—represents a core value for Middlebury and for me personally. Annual giving directly supports the essential operations of the institution. And the president’s discretionary fund supports the innovation we must pursue as an institution to continue to thrive.

That strict focus on three priorities has created some difficult conversations on campus about other priorities, but we agreed to stay focused, and I’m pleased to say that we surpassed our goals in all three fundraising areas last year.

I believe that people have seen that the discipline of sticking to those three things and continuing to do so over the next couple of years is important.

Shifting gears a bit, could you describe the working relationship you’ve developed with the undergraduate faculty over the past year?

I think the Middlebury faculty is extraordinary. It wasn’t a surprise in any way, but some things stand out. I have experienced them as ready to work, ready to engage, ready to think in new and innovative ways.

I find them all very much aware of the changes that are happening in higher education. Of course they have different opinions about it. As one example, we had a tough discussion around how to change our civilization requirement this year. We had really good, open debate, we had a vote, and we went forward with a significant change. I’ve seen that same attitude on a couple of smaller initiatives as well.

So I’ve been impressed with the way faculty have responded to our new governance system, the way they’ve responded to me as a president, as well as to the style that I’m trying to create for leadership. I can’t say enough good things about our faculty.

You bring up the changes that are happening in higher education. The liberal arts have always evolved, in some way, with the times. How do you see a liberal arts education evolving during the next decade?

You know, I think there are three key concepts at play when talking about the evolution of the liberal arts: integration, adaptation, and innovation. Integration speaks to a student’s capacity to find a place for her knowledge in the world; adaptation is the ability to “turn on a dime” in response to a new environment; and innovation is understanding when to ask a new question and how to implement the answer in an effective way. All three of these areas are both skills and dispositions and require a certain kind of creativity and humility as well as courage.

I think the creative questions that Middlebury students have always been trained to ask will be at the front and center of our next decade, but with a twist. The students of the future will need to operate in the digital world where interactive databases and artificial intelligence—the likes of which we’ve never seen—will be facets of everyday life. And they will also need to comprehend urgent environmental challenges, challenges that already are altering life on this planet. And I think they will be comfortable working in collaborative environments. Students of the future are going to need to tackle these challenges in groups, not alone.

 OK, so, getting more granular, if we’re projecting 10 years out, for students entering the marketplace—both of ideas and employment—in 2026, what skills will they need to succeed?

Well, this era can no longer be defined simply as postindustrial. We’re entering a cognitive age, where knowledge and the service economy are at the center of what we do. So students will need digital skills, communication skills, and team skills. If they’re going to thrive in this environment, they’re going to need to be familiar with complexity, with neuroscience, with data analytics. But—and this is important—that doesn’t mean that disciplines such as history or philosophy or the traditional sciences become less relevant. They become more relevant because we need to look at the past in order to study the future; we need ethics and epistemology even more than before if we care to remain curious and creative in this new era.

You made a face when you said the word “relevant.”

[Laughs] I’ve never liked that word, because ultimately it’s not adaptive. If a conference in Delhi on early-Indian history now requires bodyguards because that moment in history has become so essential to a nation’s identity, does that mean that same scholarship was irrelevant during times when such security was not needed? Knowledge is always relevant; when we lock on to a restrictive idea of relevance, then we’re unable to adapt when we need to do so. 

And this comes back to the notion of integration that you talked about before.

Exactly. These new methods of learning and these new areas of discovery can be integrated into traditional liberal arts education in some wonderful ways. I’ve never really thought of liberal arts as “traditional” in the sense that they should always focus on “what we’ve always done.” Rather, liberal learning should make all of us permanently and joyfully uncomfortable, and permanently and joyfully restless. That’s because we’ve become curious for the rest of our lives.

 So how do we, as an institution, plan for this? Envisioning Middlebury—this year of conversation we’re having about the future of the institution—obviously seems like the first step.

I think that the Envisioning Middlebury process continues to be at its core a strategic planning process, but I think what’s exciting about it is that for the first time everybody’s voice will matter and everybody’s voice includes the undergraduate college, Monterey, the Language Schools, Schools Abroad, School of the Environment, and Bread Loaf. There’s a lot of energy in the Schools Abroad, too, in all of those arenas, and I think that people are beginning to interact more and see how they could work with each other while maintaining their separate identities. And so we have the good groundwork for this kind of highly consultative strategic planning process.

The other thing that was a wonderful pivot that we made about six months ago is that we’re not going to be creating a long list of to-dos for our strategic plan. We’re going to have six or seven strategic directions that people can then envision themselves in and propose their own strategic planning underneath those directions.

I really want those directions not to be business as usual. I want us to frame them in a way that wakes everybody up, and I’m very committed to that; what that looks like, we don’t know yet. I have my own idea of where we want to go, but I am articulating that through questions so that the process is not simply performative. My role is more like a head coach of this project, and I think that Susan Baldridge, our provost, has done a really wonderful job of keeping it on track and keeping people excited and engaged.

Middlebury just hired a new dean for spiritual and religious life. With data showing that college students are becoming increasingly secular, what is his role on campus?   

I think the two biggest trends that religious life professionals face in higher education today are the students who self-identify as having no religious ties and students who are interested in interfaith work. 

The so-called “Nones” cover a wide range of experiences—some have left a childhood tradition, others have never had one, and then there are those who are actively committed to a secular humanist perspective. Our team at Middlebury is prepared to address both those who come from traditional backgrounds as well as those who don’t have affiliation but who are seekers, who are interested in a spiritual grounding to their lives without necessarily building that grounding through a traditional structure of religious authority.

And the interfaith work . . .

We’ve already seen it at Middlebury with groups such as MOSAIC (Middlebury Organization Supporting All Identities and Cultures), and I expect we’ll see even more in the years ahead. And it’s happening on campuses across the country. I run a national workshop for liberal arts college professors in this area with the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, and it’s phenomenal to watch the dynamism in these new interfaith models emerging.

When I think of interfaith work, I think of people of different faiths coming together for the greater good of a community . . .

I think that’s perhaps the most common application, this service-and-conversation model that campus religious professionals use to facilitate both greater understanding of different cultures and shared purposes.

And this ties in, again, to the idea of knowledge; I wouldn’t be in this business if I didn’t believe that more knowledge should make you a better person. Being literate in religious traditions is important if one is to have a comprehensive understanding of how the world works. But let’s take this further. What’s the ethical element of religious literacy? Does our understanding of different religious faiths contribute to character building? Could one channel this understanding toward the creation of a civic space where people would not be deterred by differences but would find a sense of common purpose? You may never agree with someone else on certain topics, but could you still come together in this space to create something for the greater good?

 On this and other topics, I’m wondering about our location in rural Vermont. It seems like we’re seeing a youth culture that is increasingly urbanized and a society that is focused on urban areas for innovation and creative thinking. What are the challenges and advantages of a four-year residential experience in a small town in northern New England?

I think that Middlebury’s commitment to the environment and its spectacular setting will always make it a place that people are drawn to. But we also need to think differently about college towns like Middlebury, which is both a rural community and a cosmopolitan one. I think interactions between town and gown are even more important than ever, because we are interlocked and interdependent in so many important ways. I have focused in the last year on the ways in which the town and college can collaborate on a common education purpose—funding internships in arts organizations, for example.

I also think that the urban/suburban/rural divides are a great way to frame the conversations across difference that all colleges are challenged by these days. We just had a vibrant orientation for first-generation students—and what I loved about it is that you had students from Brooklyn, South Side Chicago, Los Angeles, intermingling with students from suburban Connecticut and farm communities in Iowa and Wisconsin. It was tremendous to be a part of, and the conversations were partly about differences of race and ethnicity, but they were also about the rural/urban/suburban experience. That’s inspiring.

 Speaking of culture change, when you moved to Vermont, you joined a new community. But joining the community wasn’t your only new
experience. As a college president, you are experiencing a community in a way that is very different than one experienced by a dean or a professor. What has that change been like?

That’s a great question. The community of alumni and trustees are the biggest constituents that a president has that are different than a professor or a dean. I did have a lot of contact with alumni as a dean, but it wasn’t as the chief executive, so I didn’t have the same sense of obligation to them. I think about alumni as the people to whom I should be grateful for building the Middlebury I have already come to love.

I think of the trustees as deeply accomplished and insightful friends of the community who have chosen to give their time and energy to Middlebury when they could be doing a thousand other things. I count on them for advice, almost every day. And because I am also a trustee, I think about the way we can be a collegial and diverse group whose fiduciary responsibilities are carried out with joy and inspiration. And I’ve found the response has been phenomenal.

Last question: Speaking frankly, how do you deal with everyone in town knowing who you are? With everyone seeing you through the
filter of “president”?

I love this question. For the most part, I find it fun. I don’t think of myself as an intimidating person, so there are times when I laugh because people are nervous when they come to the office or meet me for coffee. I tell them they can be nervous around the role, but not the person. Middlebury faculty, staff, and students have been responsive to a more informal everyday leadership style. And then when we move into a formal occasion such as Convocation, we can be more connected because we know each other on an everyday basis. I find that inspiring. 

The only downside is what I call “the cauliflower effect.” On a rare day when I don’t have anything scheduled, and I feel like going to the store to buy ingredients to make my favorite cauliflower dish, it’s never a simple anonymous trip to the store. In addition to the warm greetings of hello, which I love, occasionally folks feel like they have the president’s ear in the checkout line and will bend it. Sometimes they’ll even be surprised that I am doing my own shopping and comment on my choice of cauliflower. But because I love the town of Middlebury, and love interacting with local businesses, I generally find it fun!

I’m making a note that if I ever see you in the grocery store, I will simply say, “Hi.”